It was a day of fortunes turned inside out: The Muslim Brotherhood, persecuted for decades by then-President Hosni Mubarak, moved closer Tuesday to winning Egypt’s parliamentary elections while the disgraced former leader listened from a defendant’s cage as a federal prosecutor demanded the “harshest penalty” for him.
More than 14 million Egyptians were eligible to cast ballots Tuesday for 150 seats in nine governorates, with the Brotherhood having registered more than 40% of the vote entering the third and final round. The main rival to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the even more religiously conservative Al Nour party, had 20%-plus of the vote in the first two rounds.
Final results are expected to be announced next week. Elections for the less-powerful upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council, are to begin Jan. 29 and presidential elections are scheduled for June.
The initial phase of parliamentary balloting, which concludes Wednesday, is expected to solidify an Islamist victory, marking a stunning reversal for the Brotherhood and the nation, which, despite its overwhelmingly Muslim population, had long been governed by secular politics. Liberal candidates, including youth leaders who helped ignite the popular revolt against Mubarak a year ago, have been set back by strategic and organizational problems.
Tuesday’s voting took place as prosecutors made arguments against Mubarak, 83, who has been on trial since August on charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of hundreds of protesters during the “Arab Spring” movement. Many Egyptians believe the toppled leader will escape justice, but prosecutors used provocative language to paint Mubarak and his family as opportunistic schemers.
Mubarak was a “tyrannical leader who sought to hand power to his younger son, Gamal, and who spread corruption in the country and opened the door to his friends and relatives, ruining the country without any accountability,” said prosecutor Mustafa Suleiman, quoted by Egyptian news reports from the courtroom.
The prosecutor also portrayed the former president’s wife, Suzanne, as plotting to have her son follow her husband: “His wife wanted to be the mother of the next president after she has been the president’s wife,” he said. “They did not realize that Egypt was not a fiefdom.”
In a dramatic rebuke of an autocrat who had ruled for nearly 30 years, Suleiman said Mubarak, who could face the death penalty, “deserves to end in humiliation and indignity: from the presidential palace to the defendant’s cage and then the harshest penalty.”
Essam Battawi, a lawyer representing Mubarak and his co-defendants, criticized Suleiman for giving a “sermonic speech” that provided no proof that Mubarak had ordered the violence that led to the deaths of demonstrators. Battawi said the prosecution “didn’t even come up with a single witness” to makes its case.
But the question rising across much of Egypt was whether the Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group under Mubarak, would win an outright majority in the parliament.
If not, it would have to form a coalition with either Al Nour or a secular bloc. The Brotherhood, which has emphasized political unity, has expressed concern that Al Nour’s rigid religious agenda would not be focused enough on Egypt’s deep economic and social problems.
Long lines stretched outside voting stations, including in the Nile Delta city of El Mahalla El Kubra, where for years textile and mill workers staged strikes and protested Mubarak’s rule. The delta region, like much of the country, appeared to favor the Brotherhood and Al Nour, which for years provided food, schools and social programs for the poor.
There were indications in some provinces, especially in tribal areas, that former members of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party might win a number of seats. The party has been disbanded but its onetime members have benefited from clan and family allegiances that heavily influence voting preferences.
The final round of elections comes after a crackdown on protesters by the military-led interim government that left at least 15 people dead last month in Cairo. The ruling generals have been unable to stem demonstrations against the country’s slow transition to democracy. Many Egyptians fear that the new 498-seat lower house of parliament will lack power and be accountable to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
A showdown between the military and the Brotherhood is expected over the drafting of a new constitution and the future of army-appointed interim Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri and his Cabinet. The army has vowed to step aside once a new president is elected in June.
Amro Hassan in The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.