CAIRO, (Reuters) – While Islamists running as independents soared in Egypt”s elections of the last month, the established secular parties crashed, looking adrift in a society where much political discourse and activity involves Islam.
The Islamist opposition not only harnessed a tide of sentiment, but also skilfully exploits its semi-official status and the role of religion in Egyptian society — options not open to the secular parties, analysts and secular politicians say.
Three leaders of the secular opposition lost their own seats. Overall, the liberal Wafd Party lost one seat to end with six, Tagammu fell from six to two and the Nasserites lost all three of their seats. Ghad”s one win was for a party rebel.
By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood increased its representation more than five-fold to 88 of the 444 elected seats, confirming it as Egypt”s strongest opposition group.
The Brotherhood”s provision of social services through a vast network of activists was key to drawing voters away from secular groups, who are seen as elite or aloof, analysts say.
In addition, secularism in Egypt and the wider region has little to show for decades of effort, while the Islamists are widely seen as fighting for justice for the Palestinians and elsewhere.
"Secularism has been a big failure. Its heydays were the Nasserite and Baath eras. They failed in terms of domestic development, and they have failed in meeting threats from Israel and others," said political science professor Walid Kazziha.
Moreover, secularism has lacked external backing: the West for decades supported Islamists to subdue Egypt”s once ascendant left, and at home the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has chosen to co-opt Islamist rhetoric instead of curbing it.
SUPPORT FOR SECULARISTS BACKFIRES
Egyptian law bans political parties based on religion, but the law has not stopped a rising tide of religiosity in Egyptian politics, and the Brotherhood fielded its election candidates as independents to sidestep the ban.
"Official discourse is pregnant with religious notions. Every member of parliament is using Islamic discourse," said Kazziha, who teaches at the American University in Cairo.
In this environment, Western support for secularists in a bid to check the Islamists” progress has backfired. U.S. favour is tantamount to a kiss of death for opposition politicians.
Meanwhile, the secularists say the state media routinely label all secular liberals as Western lackeys and all leftists as communists, leaving little room for secular parties to develop a positive profile.
Islam is harder for governments to denigrate because they promote their own version of Islamic piety.
Such propaganda has helped to push Egyptians towards Islam, especially the young who make up a majority of the population.
"The most important factor … is that traditional parties were deprived of young people. The only sector of Egyptian politics that was dramatically rejuvenated was the Muslim Brotherhood," said political analyst Mohamed el-Sayed Said.
The concentration of power in secular parties in the hands of a few ageing or authoritarian leaders reluctant to subject themselves to re-election appears to have alienated younger voters and those hankering for democracy, he said.
The Islamists have also adopted many democratic principles, diluting secular and state claims to the democratic high ground.
CRADLE TO GRAVE
Many of the secularists themselves argue that Islam”s role in education and charitable activities, and its ability to mobilise society through the mosques, gives the political Islamists an unfair political advantage.
"The Muslim Brotherhood takes you from high school, it finds a wife for you and it includes you in a global movement," said Mahmoud Abaza, vice president of the Wafd party.
"It is not the role of the secular opposition to provide social services."
The secularists also say that charitable donations at mosques, a common Islamic practice, are effectively turned into political currency when they are used to fund social programmes run by the Brotherhood.
"All the mosques of this country have become headquarters for the Muslim Brotherhood … Money played the main role in these elections. As a party we have no such money," said Nabil Zaki, editor of the left-wing Tagammu party”s newspaper.
The Brotherhood”s lack of official status may also be an advantage of sorts; official parties need approval from the government, which prefers to endorse only competitors who are weak.
But the Brotherhood has had its share of state harassment too, ranging from police violence to mass arrests. Its lack of party status means it cannot easily contest presidential polls.
Kazziha pinned his hope of a broader political spectrum on the 80 percent of Egyptians who did not vote: "For the moment you have the state on one side, the opposition of the Muslim Brothers on the other, and in between a vast sea of people who are depoliticised."