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Former Egyptian militants turn to politics

The strictest of Egypt's Islamists, some with roots in terrorist groups in the 1980s and '90s, are emerging from the shadows of the Mubarak era to fight for power at the ballot box.

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“Many countries are trying to build relations with the new Egyptian government right now – the new people running things – and say, we have similar interests and concerns in trying to keep the bad guys out," says a Western diplomat in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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A push for sharia

Gamaa Islamiya (GI) has not yet announced its party platform. But like half a dozen other salafist parties, it is urging governance by Islamic law, known as sharia.

“I don’t think anyone should be under the impression that [GI] has become moderate,” Dr. Hamid says. “No – this is going to be a very conservative anti-western, anti-secular, Islamist party. This will not be like the Muslim Brotherhood in that respect.” The GI insists that women's faces must be covered in public, and is generally less flexible than the Muslim Brotherhood on how Islam should be interpreted in the modern world.

The GI emerged from student groups in the 1970s after the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence. For the next two decades, they carried out terrorist attacks and partnered with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1981. Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri went on to be Osama bin Laden's No. 2 in Al Qaeda, and has now succeeded bin Laden as the group's official leader.

But over time, militant Islamist groups in Egypt lost support because of their violence. The Islamic Jihad eventually renounced violence as well (Zawahiri and many of his confederates, however, fled the region for Pakistan and Afghanistan). Today, the GI in Egypt claims to have about 50,000 members, according to Stephane Lacroix, an assistant professor at Sciences Po in Paris who studies militant Islam.

'Tea Party effect' could lessen Egyptian support for Israel

Analysts say Islamist groups have little chance of winning a large number of seats in upcoming elections, but that their mobilization will still have an impact.

The Brotherhood will no longer have a monopoly on the religious vote and will be forced to compete with more conservative groups that might ultimately drag religious parties in a more overtly pro-sharia direction, analysts say.


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