Cairo, Egypt - For months, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has focused single-mindedly on this moment — parliamentary elections beginning Monday that the fundamentalist group is expected to dominate. Now it may be a pyrrhic victory.
The Brotherhood stayed on the sidelines of this week's protests by secular liberal groups demanding the country's military rulers step down, hurting its image among key sectors of the Egyptian public who accuse the group of siding with the generals and selling out democracy demands to gain power.
By staying out of the protests, "the Brotherhood has made it clear that they want elections because they want the seat of power, no matter what that seat looks like," said Abdel-Jalil el-Sharnoubi, who once headed the Brotherhood's website until he quit the group earlier this year in frustration with its leadership.
Ever since the Feb. 11 fall of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, fears have been growing among some Egyptians that the country would take a strong turn toward Islamic fundamentalism.
The Brotherhood was long repressed under Mubarak but it built up Egypt's largest and most disciplined political organization, with tens of thousands of members around the country, as well as a network of charities providing food, money and medical care to the poor. They have been campaigning furiously for months, while liberal, leftist and secular parties that arose since Mubarak's fall have been disorganized and divided, struggling to build up their national presence.
But the group's popularity has limits. Particularly, even many Egyptians who have no problem with greater religious conservatism in public life are suspicious that the Brotherhood is too authoritarian in its ways and too eager to rule. For that reason, the blow to the Brotherhood reputation stings, undermining the image it has pushed hard in its election campaign that it is a trustworthy, pious group that — as their slogan declares — "brings good for Egypt."
The explosion of protests against the military, which stepped in to rule when Mubarak fell, pushed the Brotherhood into a corner. Activists accuse the generals of acting as much the dictators as Mubarak and seeking to retain power. The protests, which began Saturday, have only grown as security forces try to suppress them, killing nearly 40 people even as the crowds have swollen to tens of thousands.
The Brotherhood refused to join the rally out of fear they would swell out of control and delay the elections. On Tuesday, the Brotherhood and several smaller parties met with the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and agreed to a compromise.
Under the deal, the military would form a new interim civilian government, parliamentary elections would go ahead on schedule, but presidential elections would be moved up to the end of June, after which the military would step aside.
Protesters rejected the deal, demanding the generals surrender power immediately.
The damage from staying out of Tahrir may not be heavy enough to set back the Brotherhood's election showing, given its powerful campaign machine. In one possible scenario, the violence in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in cities around the country could even benefit it. If turmoil reduces turnout at the polls, the Brotherhood's results could be inflated because its supporters are the most organized and will cast ballots in large numbers no matter what.
But the chaos will undermine the legitimacy of the vote, and the parliament that emerges will have a deeply damaged mandate. Many liberals already say the parliament won't be truly representative. Even if the Brotherhood and other Islamic parties gain the largest bloc or majority, they will have a difficult time pushing through any agenda at a time when divisions among all Egypt's factions have been enflamed by the past week's violence.
And the prize itself is not so sweet — a legislature and government under the shadow of the military, which will keep its overwhelming power at least until the end of June, after presidential elections are held. The military, as head of state, is attempting to take a major role in writing the next constitution, a process that parliament has expected to oversee.
"Whatever leadership emerges from the election will only be secretaries for the military, and if elections take place, the only result will be to divide Egyptians more," said el-Sharnoubi, the former Brotherhood activist.
Younger Brotherhood members have defied the leadership's decision and joined the demonstration. Loyalties among Brotherhood youth have been increasingly fraying since the uprising against Mubarak as cadres feel pressured to choose between the group and the "revolution."
Mohammed al-Gebbah was running for election in the Nile Delta province of Damietta on the Brotherhood's slate, but he froze his campaign — and his membership in the group — to join the crowds in Tahrir.
"I couldn't imagine myself campaigning while my people here got killed for no reason but only calling for freedom," he said, standing at his tent in the square. "How could I be elected under the authority of the military council, whose hands are stained with blood of the Egyptians."
"These elections are Egypt's, not the elections of the Brotherhood's leaders," he said. "The Brothers are not all of Egypt, they are part of Egypt."
Al-Gabbah says he still hopes to reform the Brotherhood from within. But in past months, others have broken completely to join other parties, including forming a new movement called the Egyptian Current, which avoids religious references in its rhetoric altogether.
The Brotherhood leadership "is working just like Mubarak regime," said Ahmed Zahran, an Egyptian Current activist. "It has lost sensibility of what the street wants. It has lost the people's sympathy."
Brotherhood officials have insisted that the decision to stay out of the square was to avoid chaos that would hurt the country. The deal they reached with the military, they point out, moves up the date for the military to hand over power, which under the generals' previous timetable would not have come until late 2012 or early 2013.
Kamal el-Helbawi, formerly a senior figure in the Brotherhood who quit the group, said the dispute could diminish the number of seats they win in parliament but "not very seriously."
The problem, he said, is that the alternatives in the campaign are not strong. Several liberal and leftist parties have formed, but they are far less known than the Brotherhood and have been unable to unify their ranks because of personal and political disputes.
"If there was an alternative," the Brotherhood chances would be "limited," he said.
Estimates of how much of parliament the Brotherhood could win have varied, a reflection of how unpredictable Egypt has become since Mubarak's fall. Participation was minimal in elections under the old regime and choices were restricted, so the leanings of vast swaths of the population of 85 million are unknown. Observers and Brotherhood members have predicted anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent.
Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood ran in parliamentary elections, scoring its biggest victory in 2005 when it took 20 percent of the seats.
"The situation is very fluid right now and the undecided voters are much more right now," Khalil Annani, expert in political Islamic groups said. I don't think there is a single force will take the majority."
Other Islamic groups are also running, particularly the ultraconservative Salafis, who follow an ideology close to puritanical Saudi Arabia, and parties more moderate than the Brotherhood. But the chances of them forming an "Islamic bloc" in parliament are unclear because of longtime divisions between them. Early in the campaign, the Brotherhood attempted an election alliance with the Salafis, who later quit complaining that the Brotherhood was too domineering.