Has the Egyptian regime finally outsmarted its largest Islamist opposition group?
CAIRO—The noise could be heard from well down the block in the muddy streets of Shubra al-Kheima, a grim industrial suburb just north of Cairo.
A chanting sign-waving crowd, about 50-strong, worked its way through the Mit Nama neighborhood, singing the praises of Dr. Mohammed El-Beltagui -- the district's incumbent parliamentarian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-known Islamist group.
"The symbol of the anchor," they chanted, referring to the Beltagui's electoral logo -- a key element in a district where illiteracy runs high. "Reform and change! He doesn't sleep and he doesn't lie!"
Every few blocks, Beltagui -- an eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor -- would stop and deliver a spirited speech, railing against the deficiencies and failings of the government.
"They wage war on us because we talk about corruption and the sewers running through our streets," he shouted. "They wage war on us because we ask why our government is selling natural gas to Israel for free."
Beltagui was one of 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- running as nominal independents -- who won seats in the People's Assembly, Egypt's lower house of parliament, in 2005. The victories established the Brotherhood as the country's largest opposition bloc with 20 percent of the legislature, despite the fact the group is outlawed by the Egyptian government and banned from forming an actual political party.
The 2005 vote amounted to a political earthquake, shaking up Egypt's normally stagnant and predictable political process. It served as a stinging rebuke of President Hosni Mubarak's dominant National Democratic Party and a vindication of the Islamist group's decision to participate in mainstream politics.
But five years later, a very different reality holds sway, as the Brotherhood works to defend its gains in elections scheduled for Sunday. A series of harsh government crackdowns has left at least 1,000 Brotherhood activists in jail, and the group's decision to contest the elections -- in defiance of wide-ranging calls for an opposition boycott -- have left it open to both internal and external second guessing. Observers close to the movement say the Brotherhood may be headed for a crushing defeat.
Very few doubt the Brotherhood's sincerity or that its supporters -- estimated at around 50,000 dedicated members -- possess the courage of their convictions; after all, its members are known for smiling in the face of routine mass arrests, and then emerging from jail to head straight back to their political activities.
But the current state of affairs has prompted a debate about the wisdom of the Brotherhood's strategy this time around.
The Brotherhood's decision to re-enter the electoral arena essentially cut the legs out from under the reform movement headed by Mohamed ElBaradei. The former International Atomic Energy Agency chief had spent months cajoling Egypt's opposition forces to boycott the vote as a sweeping gesture of no-confidence in the Mubarak regime's commitment to a true democratic process, but the Brotherhood announced its decision to participate in October.
Brotherhood decision-making is famously opaque, but the group's leaders acknowledge that the decision to defend their parliament seats was far from unanimous.
"Of course, there was a lot of internal discussions and debate," said Mohammed Moursi, a Brotherhood MP. "It's a continuation of our historic struggle for reform. This is our national duty -- sacrificing for the nation."
Beltagui, the MP from Shubra al-Kheima, added, "We decided that participation enabled us to express the desires of the people. We want to emphasize the will of the people for change."
After-the-fact analysis of the 2005 elections attributed the result to a combination of factors: the strength of the Brotherhood's formidable grassroots infrastructure of dedicated cadres, plus widespread public dissatisfaction with both the government and the established political parties.
Political scientist Khalil El-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at the University of Durham, breaks down the Brotherhood's support into three broad categories: Hardcore cadres willing to fight through police lines to cast their vote, more casual supporters who benefit from the wide range of Brotherhood social services, and protest voters looking to support anyone from outside the established political order.
Based on what Shubra al-Kheima residents told me, much of that appeal appears to be still in place.
Mohamed Ismail, a 25-year-old accountant and one of the marchers in Beltagui's campaign rally, said he was drawn to Beltagui not so much because of his personal qualifications as a candidate as for the larger ideals he represents.
"We're with the Islamic project. It's not just Dr. Beltagui as one man," Ismail said.
But Gaber Refaat, a 30-year old Arabic teacher who was playing dominoes in a cafe as the march went by, seems to represent the other camp of potential Brotherhood voters. He said he would vote for Beltagui on Sunday, but not for any ideological reason. What attracts Refaat is Beltagui's record of charitable acts, including offering free medical service at his clinic for those who can't afford to pay.
"It's not because of the Brotherhood. I don't really care about that," Refaat said. "It's because of who he is as a person -- because he does what he says he's going to do."
Nevertheless, all indications point to serious reversal of fortune for the Brotherhood this time around. The government seems determined to reign in the group, and five years as the main opposition bloc in parliament have proven the Brothers can annoy and harass, but not seriously hinder, the government.
Mohammed Habib, the group's former* deputy supreme guide and second in command, told me he expects the group will win "15 seats at most" on Sunday. His estimate may have been an attempt to lower expectations, but few observers expect the Brotherhood to emerge from the upcoming election with more than half its current total of 88 seats.
The Brotherhood's normally disciplined message control has also broken down badly in the days leading up to the election. As the full extent of the government's pressure campaign has become apparent, dissident Brothers have begun going public with calls for the group with withdraw rather than participate in a rigged vote -- a move that would essentially amount to admission of a tactical error.
"This is the last chance for the Brotherhood to announce its withdrawal from parliamentary elections," prominent Brotherhood leader Mukhtar Noh told the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm Tuesday. Noh and a handful of others have formed what they're calling the Brotherhood Opposition Front, to pressure their own leadership to reverse course.
"It's time the group took the bold decision to withdraw all its candidates from this electoral game, which lacks even a modicum of credibility," Noh said. "Such a withdrawal would destroy the legitimacy of the elections."
However, such a reversal would prove embarrassing for the proud and venerable organization, opening it up to second-guessing from those outside the Brotherhood and also a potential revolt by younger cadres against the group's aging leadership. The Brotherhood's newly installed supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, may not feel secure enough to deliver such a public mea culpa.
There can be no doubt, however, that the Brotherhood's decision badly weakened the drive for domestic reform that appeared to be gaining steam following ElBaradei's return to Egypt. What remains to be seen is how badly the Brotherhood also weakened itself in the process.
*This article originally identified Mohammed Habib as the Muslim Brotherhood's current deputy supreme guide and second in command. He formerly held those positions.
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