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Egypt keeps Muslim Brotherhood boxed in

Cairo is open to political reform, but won't include Islamic group.

(Page 2 of 2)

Ali Abdel Fatah, the Brotherhood's burly and gregarious chief organizer in Egypt's second city of Alexandria, laughs at the quandary of his organization. He says the Brotherhood is doing everything in its power to convince Egyptians of its commitment to democracy, but concedes that it's difficult to disprove allegations that every democratic promise is part of a conspiracy to trick the people and seize power.

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"The Brotherhood should be the ones who are afraid,'' he says. "We haven't had the trial of power, we aren't the ones who've formed military courts to jail opponents, executed peaceful activists, destroyed Egypt's civil society, or transformed the state into a series of personal fiefdoms. All we want is an open and fair system."

Mr. Fatah grew up in a secular household, and became religious at college in the 1970s, at first under the influence of the Gamma Isalmiyah, a more radical group that favored political violence. Like many in his generation he was disillusioned with secularism after Egypt's defeat in its 1967 war with Israel.

By the late 1970s, he'd grown closer to the Brotherhood because of what he said was its more humane and open approach. "For instance, if someone was drunk in public, the Gamma would want to have him whipped. The Brotherhood, instead, would want to talk to him and explain [that] what he's doing is wrong."

Fatah and other Brotherhood leaders point to their management of Egypt's professional syndicates as evidence that they're committed to democracy. The syndicates - quasiofficial professional groups that are a cross between unions and licensing organizations - hold periodic elections. Members pay fees to the syndicates, which run both charities and pension plans for their members.

'An Islamic democratic model'

In the 1980s, the Brotherhood began organizing to take control of the syndicates at the ballot box under the tutelage of Mr. Futuh, a member of the Brotherhood's organizing board and a probable successor to Akef, who is 83, as the organization's supreme guide.

Futuh, who once ran the doctor's syndicate and remains a senior official there, points out that when the Brotherhood has lost syndicate elections it peacefully ceded control. In recent doctors and lawyers syndicate elections, the Brotherhood ran fewer candidates than it could have, essentially inviting representation from both pro-government factions and secular opposition groups onto the boards.

"We changed from wanting to dominate the syndicates to allowing more plural boards because, even though we know we could win control easily with total Brotherhood slates we'd be excluding a lot of people,'' he says. "What we want out of our involvement in the syndicate is to give an Islamic democratic model, to show that it works in practice."

Brotherhood leadership of these organizations has generally reduced mismanagement and improved their financial condition, but has also provided the Brotherhood with a source of funds to advance its own agenda. In recent years, the doctor's syndicate, for instance, has sent a large amount of aid to Palestinians, winning goodwill for the Brotherhood in the process.

And while the doctor's syndicate board may have fewer Muslim Brotherhood members than it used to, the organization's downtown offices remain a bastion for the brothers. The hallways are covered with panoramic photos of the Brotherhood's 2003 protest against the Iraq war and pictures of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the assassinated leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The pace of change

Futuh says Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is so deeply opposed to his organization because of America, which he claims largely controls the Egyptian regime. He says the US knows the Brotherhood would change Egypt's policy toward Israel and probably overturn the two countries 20-year peace deal if it won power.

But while he and other Brotherhood members express frustration at the slow pace of change, they also say they remain committed to the organization's long-term strategy in Egypt, which has put preservation of the movement's core above risking an all-out conflict with the government that could see them destroyed. Fatah says the organization expects it to take decades to rise to power, but it's willing to wait.

Ibrahim al-Hudaiby, a Brotherhood member whose grandfather and great-grandfather ran the organization until their deaths, is a student at American University in Cairo. The movement's democracy rhetoric is no trick, he says, and that the Brotherhood is unlikely to push for more open conflict with the government.

"Revolutions don't really lead to democracies, just look at Iran,'' he says. "The Brotherhood really wants a democracy in Egypt, and it's willing to wait to make that happen peacefully."