Islamic militants join Egyptian mainstream

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest militant Islamic organization, has joined the establishment in a big way. For decades, the Ikhwan, as the group calls itself, was a banned and hunted underground organization in Egypt. But President Hosni Mubarak has allowed the Brotherhood to reemerge as a semi-legitimate force.

In April, some 35 Ikhwan members were elected to parliament. They are harshly critical of many government policies, but have also shown an ability to work with the government.

Last week, the Ikhwan joined the ruling National Democratic Party in voting for President Mubarak's nomination to a second six-year presidential term. The nomination passed overwhelmingly, with only the rightist Wafd party protesting. According to Egypt's Constitution, Mr. Mubarak now becomes the only presidential candidate in a national referendum scheduled on Oct. 5.

The votes Ikhwan members cast in favor of Mubarak's nomination seemed to underscore the group's determination to work within the political system. That is an important achievement for Mubarak, who is trying to expand and reinvigorate Egypt's atrophied political system without sacrificing political and social stability.

Mubarak hopes, analysts here say, that by allowing the Ikwhan to reemerge as a political force, he can channel the growing influence of political Islam. ``The idea is that once the Ikhwan is brought into the mainstream, they have a vested interest in maintaining it,'' a veteran Western analyst says.

In the parliamentary elections, the Ikhwan conducted an aggressive, well-organized campaign, posting banners all over Egypt that proclaimed the group's straightforward campaign platform in a single phrase: ``Islam is the solution.'' Ikhwan members called frequent press conferences and spoke openly of their determination to persuade the People's Assembly to adopt Sharia (Islamic law).

Other, more radical Islamic militant groups, such as the so-called Islamic Jihad organization, reject the Brotherhood's notion of working within the system. Jihad claimed responsibility in May for two assassination attempts on Egyptians - a former interior minister and a newspaper editor opposed to the Islamic trend.

The Ikhwan condemned the assassination attempts, but also condemned the government's subsequent mass arrests of thousands of people suspected of sympathizing with Jihad.

``Until now, there is no evidence that Jihad committed these crimes,'' complains Mamoun Hodeibi, a judge, and leader of the Ikhwan's parliamentary faction. ``If we question the arrests, the government says that we are with the Jihad. We are not with Jihad, but we understand their frustration. For more than 30 years, the Islamic parties were crushed fiercely. That gave them the idea that force must be opposed by force. They believe people want Sharia, and the government opposes that.''

By giving the Ikhwan a parliamentary stage for airing its grievances, the government hopes to isolate and undercut the appeal of those Islamic militants who demand the immediate overthrow of the regime and imposition of Islamic law.

Some members of Mubarak's own party, however, remain bitterly opposed to the decision to allow the Ikhwan back into the People's Assembly. They fear the parliamentary opposition (120 of 458 seats) may come to exert more influence than its numbers warrant because of the enormous popular appeal of the Islamic cause in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

For decades, the Ikhwan operated as a clandestine group that engaged in often violent clashes with the government. Founded in 1929, it reached its apex in the 1940s. It was crushed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser after an Ikhwan member attempted to assassinate him in 1954.

The Ikhwan enjoyed a brief renaissance under President Anwar Sadat before he, too, moved against it in the last years of his rule in the late 1970s.

Ikhwanis now seem to mean it when they say they are ready to seek the adoption of Islamic law through parliamentary action rather than by overthrowing the government. ``We are determined to educate the people to accept Sharia without force,'' says Mr. Hodeibi.

The Brotherhood supported Mubarak's nomination even though it has fiercely attacked the government in the past two months, including accusing the government of rigging the parliamentary elections.

The Ikhwan is walking a fine line. It is trying to maintain credibility with its constituency while keeping enough of the government's trust to be allowed to continue functioning.

No one is more acutely aware of the dilemma than Hodeibi, who spent eight years in prison under Nasser. He was released when Mr. Sadat came to power and opted to use the Brotherhood to dilute the strength of leftist groups in Egypt.

Sadat allowed exiled Ikhwanis to return from the Gulf and freed long-jailed activists, but his tactics eventually backfired. As the strength of the Islamic militants grew, so did their criticism of key Sadat policies. The President instituted a broad crackdown on militants shortly before the Islamic Jihad assassinated him on Oct 6, 1981.

Mubarak was at Sadat's side when he was assassinated. Mubarak has opted to pursue a course of accommodating the Islamic militants who are willing to work with him. Laws that enhanced women's rights have been repealed and steps have been taken to institute Sharia laws in selected areas.

Mubarak continues to stall, however, on the implementation of Sharia, which would alienate the nation's 5 to 8 million-strong Coptic Christian minority.

So Mubarak has put limits on accommodation. The Ikhwan still is not considered a legal political party. It got into parliament by joining forces with two legal parties, but its members are generally recognized as the driving force behind the so-called Alliance. It won more seats than it has ever controlled in a post-revolutionary Egyptian parliament, but it still cannot operate offices legally.

``Legally, we're not here,'' Hodeibi said in a recent interview in the organization's Cairo office. ``We don't exist. We are here, but we are not here.''

But, he added, ``Since Nasser's days, these are the best days of the Ikhwan. Today we are in parliament and we have newspapers, but we still do not have full rights.''

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