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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Hedges Its Bets (Which Is Why It's Still on Top)

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As the biggest socio-political crisis facing Egypt since February continues to unfold in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is again demonstrating its political agility in using such moments to its advantage.

The MB and other Islamists initiated calls for last Friday's modest protest in Cairo against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for perceived attempts to secure its own dominance of the country through a series of supra-constitutional principles that would exclude the military from any civilian oversight. However, after the SCAF violently attacked protesters in Tahrir Square, sparking a public outcry and several days of escalating demonstrations by revolutionaries, the MB announced on Monday that it would refrain from participating in further street protests and that it remained committed to the current electoral timetable (scheduled to begin on 28 November).

This deft move by the MB demonstrates exactly why the organization's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is poised to sweep the country's parliamentary elections, regardless of when they are held. This announcement, coupled with an expression of sympathy for the protesters' frustrations, enabled Egypt's most venerable Islamist party to accomplish the following:

  • They appealed to the broader Egyptian public outside of Tahrir Square, which is desperate to return to life-as-normal, tends to support the SCAF's authority, and is inclined to believe the state-run media (which is relentlessly loyal to the regime) over opposition and liberal media outlets. The MB has already worked hard to broaden its appeal by working the streets during the brief electoral campaign season, and this will convince more average, politically indifferent Egyptians that the Brotherhood stands for reason, stability, and normalcy.
  • In the event the SCAF survives the unfolding crisis -- and Gen. Tantawi's speech on Tuesday afternoon confirms that his council has no intention of giving in to protesters' demands -- the MB stands to re-enter the generals' good graces by having stood down during the worst of the violence. The SCAF may not explicitly endorse FJP candidates in the imminent elections, but it may be inclined to favor them in future negotiations and "national dialogues," particularly when it comes to the next critically important national challenge -- redrafting the constitution.
  • By championing the current election schedule, the MB presents itself as the "most democratic" faction -- even as it enjoys strategic victory as the single party that will benefit exponentially from hasty parliamentary elections. This may become even more pronounced if liberal / secular parties boycott the elections, continue to lose public sympathy, or simply collapse in the wake of the current chaos.

Egypt's protesters are fully aware of the MB's double-game, and they voiced their opinion early on Tuesday by ejecting Mohamed El-Beltagi, the head of the FJP, from Tahrir Square. But this small symbolic gesture will pale in comparison to the considerable gains that the MB will likely reap from this chaos in the weeks to come.