Ever since it won 88 seats (out of 444) in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has shown itself to be Egypt's most disciplined and well-organised political force:
· Officially banned, it has built a vast social base through a mixture of social work and the spread of its religious message, contrasting itself with a ruling regime increasingly viewed as corrupt and inefficient.
· Having previously hovered between confrontation and participation, since 2006 the MB has increased the number of elections it contests, for the first time presenting candidates in labour union elections in 2006, the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) in 2007 and now next week's municipal council elections.
New context. These elections are taking place in a vastly different context from 2005.
Presidency link. Presence in the municipal councils is now a prerequisite for fielding a presidential candidate under the new system introduced by President Hosni Mubarak in May 2005 and again amended in March 2007:
· Under Article 76 of the constitution, all presidential candidate nominations are to be supported by at least 250 members of elected bodies, including 65 members of the People's Assembly, 25 members of the Shura Council, and ten members of local councils in 14 governorates (ie --140 councillors), with the remaining 20 to be drawn from any of the above (existing political parties will be exempted from these conditions in the next election).
· While the MB is not trying to qualify to field a candidate in the next scheduled presidential election in 2011, it is preparing the ground for future elections, particularly if the political context changes. This could be a future challenge for Mubarak's son, Gamal. Political party? The MB's decision to contest elections comes after the announcement in January 2007 that it wants eventually to form a political party:
· The MB does not believe that this is possible under Mubarak, who is adamantly opposed to the idea of a legal Islamist party, but is again thinking longer term, hoping that Mubarak's successor will be willing to make a grand bargain with it and end the MB's isolation from the formal political system.
· With this in mind, it has begun to draft a political programme and envisages one day creating a separate political entity, with the MB itself returning to focus on its proselytising mission.
· MB leaders insist that they want to integrate into the political system gradually, making use of the oversight functions of the legislative branch of government to push for reform and fight corruption.
· The regime and the MB's critics see in this a long-term plan to infiltrate government institutions and implement an Islamic state at the expense of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority and Muslim secularists.
NDP dilemmas. The ruling NDP faces two main problems in the municipal elections:
Brotherhood competition. It is unwilling to have its candidates face competition from the MB at a time when its own public image has reached a nadir because of popular anger at high inflation and commodity prices. These have created a shortage of bread that has caused riots (killing 15) and deeply embarrassed the government, which has called upon the army to take over bread distribution.
The municipal elections had originally been scheduled for April 2006, but in February of that year Mubarak postponed them for two years. It was then widely assumed that the regime did not want to risk another Islamist success at the ballot box so soon after the 2005 parliamentary elections and Hamas's victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections. As the date of the elections approached and the MB showed no sign of relenting, the verdict in the trial of 40 senior MB leaders facing a military tribunal was postponed twice. The regime was probably trying to send a message to the MB that it could avoid a harsh sentence by withdrawing.
NDP discipline. The 2005 elections had shown that the NDP faced internal discipline problems, since most of the seats that make up its parliamentary majority of 72% were actually won by members who ran as independents against the candidate officially chosen by party leadership