The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood faced an impossible situation in last month's Shura Council elections. Highly controversial Constitutional revisions designed to prevent its legitimate political participation had come into effect, large numbers of Brothers including some of the most senior leaders were in prison, and the government was fairly explicit in its plans to fix the elections against whatever Brotherhood candidates ran. Despite all that, the Brotherhood contested the elections, putting out a quite liberal 72 page platform and attempting to run in multiple districts. When the results were announced, not a single Brotherhood candidate was declared the winner - leading even the fiercely anti-MB former intelligence chief Fouad Allam to pronounce the results highly implausible.
While the decision to participate in a fixed game was internally controversial, Essam el-Erian argued that participation carried benefits well beyond winning or losing. The MB's participation forced the judiciary into greater role interpreting the constitution, put the higher council for elections on the spot, and cast a sharp spotlight on regime contradictions and hypocrisies. What's more, argued Erian, it revived the general sense of importance of participation, forced movement inside the NDP, brought new MB figures from the third and fourth ranks into the public eye and trained them in new forms of outreach, and denied the regime a monopoly on the public sphere. I would add that the MB's decision to contest the Shura Council elections spoke volumes about the organization's real commitment to democratic participation - if there were ever a time when a boycott would have been understood, it was now (and indeed other opposition parties called for one). But they didn't. In the end, I think they were vindicated, as they came out looking like determined democrats while the regime came across as a blundering, anti-democratic behemoth... not that this will evidently cost them any US military aid.
What made me think about last month's Egyptian elections right now was the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood's decision to withdraw its candidates from today's municipal elections. Fears of an "Islamist victory" in these elections were always exaggerated - the Jordanian MB had put forward only 33 candidates, out of almost 3000 total, so couldn't exactly have swept the board. But then at the last minute the MB pulled its candidates from the contest. It claimed that the signs of impending electoral fraud were overwhelming and insurmountable: blocking of voting booths, stuffing of the electoral rolls, harrassment and arrests of MB candidates and journalists... the usual. But all of that is standard procedure and could hardly have come as a surprise. In a statement explaining its withdrawal, it claimed that the last straw was "secret information" it had received that members of the armed forces had been ordered to vote against the MB's candidates and been bused in to make sure that they voted. Maybe. More likely, it anticipated a weak showing and panicked, figuring that pulling out would delegitimize the election (it is calling the municipal elections an insult to
Jordanians and damaging to the nation). But the decision to pull out at the very last minute has allowed the government to seize the high ground, with Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit declaring that such a last-minute boycott is unprecedented and illegal.
Boycott decisions are always a tricky thing. By not participating, the Jordanian MB cedes any role in the municipalities, and allows its enemies to challenge its commitment to democracy. On the other hand, participating in a rigged game would legitimize the process, and would allow its enemies to claim that its poor showing proved its declining influence and popular appeal. The contrast with the Egyptian MB is quite telling, though. The Egyptian MB scored a real moral victory by participating and losing, demonstrating its democratic credentials and making the regime and the NDP look absurd. By pulling out at the last minute like this, the Jordanian MB is likely to have hurt itself more than the regime, and will likely feed the public questioning of its real attitudes. I suppose they will claim credit for the low turnout, which has forced the polls to stay open for several more hours in order to get to the legal threshold of 50.1% (despite the declaration of a national holiday to facilitate voting), but somehow I don't think that you need a Brotherhood boycott to explain low turnout for a municipal election...
Beyond the municipal elections (which are only of limited importance, really, and the MB also boycotted them outside of Amman in 2003), most analysts will be looking at the likely implications for the Parliamentary elections scheduled for November. Most have doubted that that the MB would boycott the Parliamentary elections (if they are actually held), given the negative experience of their 1997 boycott and the region-wide wave of Islamist electoral victories. Now the odds of a MB boycott of the Parliamentary elections have probably gone up. The Jordanian government would probably be thrilled if the MB decided to boycott those elections. Its greatest fear is Islamist electoral success, which is unlikely under the current electoral law but not impossible, and it would probably prefer to pay the legitimacy costs of an MB boycott than risk the political costs of either an MB victory or having to resort to overly obvious electoral fraud. Bakhit's government, which admits no wrongdoing, will likely do things the exact same way in November, especially since it now knows which buttons to push. The Jordanian MB, for its part, may not be up to an electoral test and may prefer to not contest them. The Brotherhood is by many accounts really struggling with internal divisions over the Hamas takeover of Gaza, and its reputation has taken a beating over the last year or two (the Zarqawi funeral affair, poor Parliamentary performance, and more). Perhaps it would prefer to sit the election out for fear of exposing its weakness, particularly since it now looks likely that those elections will be held under the much-criticized old electoral law despite all efforts at reform.
Parliamentary elections without the MB, however tempting this looks to the Jordanian regime or to the US, would not be a good thing for Jordanian democracy or politics. For all its problems, the MB remains Jordan's largest political party, in a system otherwise dominated by tribes, personalities, and regime patronage. While I'm not particularly impressed with the Jordanian MB, given the trends across the region and Jordan's very real political, economic, and social problems I'm skeptical of the many reports of the MB's decline. Better by far to have the MB engaged in the political realm than losing support to more radical competitors, and better to have a Parliament which at least somewhat approximates the real distribution of opinion in the Kingdom. In Jordan as in Egypt, you can't have anything meaningfully democratic when the primary political opposition is shut out of the game. We'll see how this all plays out for November. As of today, though, the Egyptian MB is looking rather better than the Jordanian MB in terms of sticking to the democratic game despite the obstacles.