CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's largest political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, held its first open internal election Saturday since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, in an attempt to burnish its democratic credentials ahead of parliamentary polls later this year.
After decades spent underground because of an official ban, the public vote is also part of a concerted push by the Islamist group to show off its organization and dispel its reputation as a secretive and closed group. It looks poised to win big at the November polls, largely because of its well-organized political machine and social outreach programs.
Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie hailed Saturday's vote, which chose three new members to the group's executive board, saying "the open and transparent elections show the world that the Brotherhood works in the open, to restore Egypt's freedom and standing."
Speaking to the gathering at a luxury hotel in the Cairo neighborhood of Nasser City, he said the vote was one of the "fruits" of the Egypt's uprising.
Saturday's vote marked a clear shift from the past, when the the Brotherhood was banned from public politics and its members and finances were targets of a constant security crackdown.
The Brotherhood went to great lengths to showcase their internal democratic practices, inviting cameras and journalists to the Saturday's event where more than 100 members of the group's policy making body cast ballots in tranparent boxes.
"This is a sign that the group respects democracy," spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said. "Egypt has undoubtedly changed a lot."
The members elected three people to the 17-member executive body to replace people who joined the leadership of the Brotherhood's newly launched political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, he said.
According to Ghozlan, the group's policymaking body hadn't been able to convene in full since 1995 in fear of mass arrests.
The group registered the Freedom and Justic Party in June, and has said it will contest half of the seats in parliament. Many of Egypt's liberal and leftist parties fear the Brotherhood may dominate the new parliament — responsible for organizing the writing of the country's new constitution — and enforce a religious tone on the document.
Dia Rashwan, an expert of Islamic movements, said the open vote was a way for the Brotherhood to reaffirm its legitimacy to the public, particularly since it hardly functioned through legitimate channels. Because of the ban, the group's legal status remains unclear, and its finances not scrutinized.
Formed in 1928, the Brotherhood was banned in 1954 after it was accused of using violent tactics against opponents. The group had later renounced violence, but remained officially banned.
Despite the stiff measures against the group, it was able to field candidates in parliamentary elections as independents and proved to be the most organized political force during Mubarak's 30-year rule. In 2005, it won 20 percent of the seats amid widespread rigging in favor of Mubarak's ruling party.