A little over a year ago, Hoda al-Ghania, a member of the banned but popular Muslim Brotherhood, was busy waging a losing battle. In the crowded, industrial towns of the Nile Delta, she campaigned diligently for a parliamentary seat that she knew the regime of President Hosni Mubarak would most likely never allow its Islamist opposition to win. But the daughter of a long and respected line of Brotherhood members was used to it. "That was our way to make a positive connection with the institutions of this country," she says. "And we insisted on participating in the political life to assure [Egyptians] that our creed is a peaceful one and to pull the veil from the fraud of the ex-regime and all its corruption to expose their practices in the elections."
The new year in Egypt has ushered in a new system with a new set of power players, and in the past 12 months, al-Ghania has seen her fortunes change dramatically. Mubarak and his sham electoral system are gone, swept away by the uprising of young Egyptians. Now the once thankless perseverance of al-Ghania and the Brotherhood is paying off with the group's quick and almost methodical ascent to the top.
After the first reasonably free election in Egypt's history, which ended Jan. 11, Islamists now control the majority in the country's parliament, and the Brotherhood snagged the lion's share with just under 50% of the seats. Able to campaign out in the open, speaking from public podiums instead of in private living rooms, al-Ghania won one of the seats she once thought impossible. The results have stunned many of Egypt's liberal youth, who led months of intermittent street battles with the military and somehow expected electoral victory as a reward.
But the Brotherhood's win was a long time coming. The group had spent years disciplining its membership, fine-tuning its message and learning the pulse of the Egyptian street. It funneled money and volunteers into health and social services, filling the public-sector void left by the Mubarak regime's corruption. "The Brotherhood is an 80-year-old organization. It has the capacity. It has the resources," says Shadi Ghazali Harb, a liberal youth activist and party leader. The group also had experience working with the old regime, he adds. "And all that allowed them to have an advantage over all of the other forces, especially the liberal and leftist forces." Indeed, when the opportunity for legal political participation came with Mubarak's ouster last February, the Brotherhood moved quickly and efficiently for the goal.
Dancing with the Military
All indicators at the start of 2012 are that the Brotherhood is still moving, still strategizing and navigating a newly fluid though residually opaque political scene. Now dealmaking is the word at the tip of many a political analyst's tongue. Mubarak has fallen, but the powerful military he left behind has not. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a shadowy group of generals once appointed by him, is ostensibly running Egypt's transition to civilian governance but wants to keep its own power largely intact. That includes the military's vast economic empire and its network of special clubs, residences and hospitals all part of a privileged subculture, impervious to scrutiny, that Mubarak spent years building to reward a loyal and obedient officer corps.
Since Mubarak's ouster, Egyptians have called the military's entitlement into question. And some observers predict that a violent confrontation will ensue between the military and the Islamist bloc, as a tug-of-war for power and influence, particularly in the drafting of Egypt's new constitution, convulses the months ahead. They say the newly empowered Islamists will push forward with the total implementation of Shari'a Islamic law as well as legislation to curtail the military's power and immunity. (Shari'a is already one of the foundations of the current Egyptian constitution.) Any military efforts to stop them would spell disaster. "This would give us a new Algeria," says Islam Ahmed Abdallah, a follower of the ultraconservative Salafi interpretation of Islam, who runs a center geared toward combatting "Christian evangelism."