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In Egypt vote, Islamist influence grows

The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to triple its numbers in parliament in Wednesday's poll.

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Though the government here downplays the Muslim-Copt divide, many argue that Egyptian society is more segregated and divided today than it was five, 10 or even 80 years ago. Last month's Muslim-Coptic riots in Alexandria, in which three people died and a nun was stabbed, highlighted tensions between the two communities.

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"There is no desire to give the Copts representation in parliament and this is among the reasons that the Christian feel oppressed," says Milad Hana, a secular Coptic writer. "There is more and more a sectarian air within the ruling powers in Egypt."

The situation for women is equally grim, say women's rights activists. Though President Hosni Mubarak repeatedly stressed the empowerment of women during his reelection campaign earlier this year, his party has nominated just six women to compete for parliament. The alliance of opposition forces has nominated just seven. Both those numbers are down from 2000, when 11 women ran from the ruling party, and 22 from the opposition.

"It's crazy, it's madness," says Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. "We are walking backward not forward. There is no future for democracy in this country as long as no one will support women."

Both opposition and ruling party officials say that discrimination, whether against women or Copts, is not driving their decision-making. Choosing who runs in which district is simply a matter of campaign strategy, they say. In traditional, predominantly Muslim districts, as almost all of Egypt's 444 districts are, Copts and women make weak candidates.

For its part the Muslim Brotherhood disputes those who say it is responsible for the alienation of Copts and women. In both 2000 and again this year, the group's deputy leader Mohammed Habib points out, the Muslim Brotherhood has endorsed a Coptic candidate. And were it not for the constant security harassment of its leaders, he says, there would be more female candidates and more women in leadership positions in the organization.

"Voting for a woman, unfortunately it's still not full accepted everywhere in Egypt," says Habib. "It takes time to change this mentality and we would like to fix this problem. But this isn't because of the Muslim Brotherhood, this is a social problem."

Much of the secular opposition, and women's rights activists, while lamenting the growing influence of religion in their society, defend the Muslim Brotherhood.

For Kamal Khalil, the leader of the Revolutionary Socialists and a candidate for parliament, defending the Muslim Brotherhood is his democratic obligation.

"If that's the opinion of the people, that they want the Muslim Brotherhoood, then we have to respect the will of the people," he says.

Ms. Komsan goes even further, accusing the government of intentionally empowering the Brotherhood to scare the US and other Islamist-wary allies into believing that Mubarak is the last line of defense against radical Islam.

"Without the Muslim Brotherhood, this government would not exist and would not gain support from Western societies," she says.