All indicators point to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party taking the lead after the first round of voting in Egypt’s initial democratic election. But if any party is to challenge the Islamists’ supremacy and put the brakes on plans to steer the country to Islamic statehood, it will almost certainly be the pro-secular Free Egyptians Party.
The four-month-old party, founded by telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris and a small group of like-minded Egyptians, is the only liberal party that seems capable of putting up a good fight against the 83-year-old Muslim Brotherhood and its political progeny, the FJP.
Each side views the other as its chief rival in this battle. The two days of voting just concluded pitted the massive old-style FJP political machine against the FEP’s young, technically savvy operation.
Naguib Abadir, executive director of the Free Egyptians, was in at the beginning. It was immediately after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Dr. Abadir (an ear, nose and throat specialist turned businessman) had just run unsuccessfully for a seat on the board of Cairo’s elite Gezira Sporting Club. Mr. Sawiris, a boyhood friend and fellow Christian, struck up a conversation on what the newly liberated country needed and how best to go about getting it. The greatest concern, the men agreed, was the threat of an Islamist takeover.
They and a number of other newly free Egyptians opted to form their own party and the FEP, officially recognized as a political entity only in July, was the result.
These days, the energetic 54-year-old Dr. Abadir, a political novice, works full time on the campaign.
The first thing he wants a visiting journalist to know is that the FEP has remained loyal to the youthful revolution that precipitated the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, even to the protests this past week in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that involved deadly clashes with riot police.
It was an odd proclamation by a member of Egypt’s elite, but was clearly meant to distinguish the secular party from the Brotherhood’s FJP. The latter had demonstrated on its own in the square, then left before the violence started, refusing to support the Tahrir protesters against the country’s military leadership. The FEP hopes to lure away some of those disappointed by the Brotherhood’s behaviour.
The FEP stands on four basic principles, Dr. Abadir says: the Egyptian identity (not a religious identity); a strong economy; education reform, and security.
But mostly the party’s hopes are pinned on a widespread concern about the threat of Islamists.
“We’ve always been a conservative, predominantly Muslim country,” Dr. Abadir said, “but we’ve been a country, not just a part of some kind of Islamic caliphate.”
The Brotherhood, he says, using the term interchangeably with its political party, the FJP, is not really democratic. “They’re not even democratic in elections inside their own organization,” he said, noting that female members can’t vote and often the Brotherhood society will dictate what its party’s members must do.
“Lies,” says Essam El-Erian, deputy chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party and a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s executive committee. “They accuse us of being fascists,” he said, bitterly. “Some political groups are not ready for democracy, themselves.”
“It is they who must learn to respect democratic choice.”
Even though his FJP is doing well politically, it does not seek to control the parliament or the constitution-writing assembly that the parliament is to create, said Dr. El-Erian, also a former physician.
“Parliament must be balanced,” he said, “and the assembly must represent all sectors of Egyptian society. We believe that.”
For a man on the verge of a long-awaited political triumph, the former Brotherhood spokesman looks unusually wan. His many terms in Mr. Mubarak’s prisons, no doubt, have a lot to do with that.
Dr. El-Erian says he does not want to stoop to calling his party’s opponents bad names, but the party’s website does. It shows an apparent FEP organizer handing out free meals to people in Christian neighbourhoods of Cairo, an improper voting inducement.
“This video was photo-shopped,” the FEP’s Dr. Abadir said dismissively.
His own party’s “war room” of several computers and young volunteers is working hard to track and expose the Brotherhood’s alleged election violations. Using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, FEP supporters report a large number of nefarious activities to the party war room, which are compiled and presented to the country’s election officials.
“There are two more rounds in this election,” Dr. Abadir explained. “We want to make sure [the Freedom and Justice Party]doesn’t cheat again.”
Among the many complaints being lodged is that outside most polling stations, the FJP maintains a table of supporters with a number of laptop computers. The supporters help local voters find their way to the correct polling location, writing the information down for them usually on a distinctive yellow card bearing the party’s colours and logo.
“It’s a clear violation,” said Sayed Esmail, an election observer from the Council on Human Rights. “They are not allowed to be so close to the polling station, nor to hand out party literature to people going in to vote.”
“We are providing a service,” Dr. El-Erian says, “helping people in their first real election. What’s the harm in that?”