In Egypt vote, Islamist influence grows

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

In electoral districts throughout Egypt, campaign posters reading simply "Islam is the solution," urge voters to choose Muslim Brotherhood candidates for parliament when they go to the polls Wednesday. Ahmed Omar, a literature student, will heed the call.

"I'm not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but I'm voting for them," says Mr. Omar. "They have values, morality, and wisdom and they hold the word of God above all else."

He is not alone. With the opposition group expected to at least triple its numbers in parliament, a significant shift in the country's political dynamic is afoot. Today, for the first time in decades, not a single Muslim Brother sits in jail, and candidates are campaigning openly as Muslim Brothers.

These parliamentary elections, more so than the country's first multi-candidate presidential poll last month, are seen as a test of the government's commitment to reform.

The incorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood into Egyptian politics is a step forward for US democratization efforts in Egypt, and may in fact be a direct response to US pressure.

The Islamist group's rise, however, has led traditionally secular political parties to place added emphasis on religion in order to compete. The result is that women and the country's 10 percent Coptic Christian minority are being squeezed out of politics.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Cairo last June and told audiences that "fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty," many here interpreted it as a call for the Egyptian government to lighten up on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unlike past parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000, when thousands of the group's members were imprisoned, the officially banned Islamic organization is campaigning free of government harassment.

The group, founded in 1928, is running 130 candidates, nearly twice as many candidates as it ran in 2000. They have organized well-attended election rallies across the country and have emerged as the chief threat to the ruling party's stranglehold on parliament.

In the Cairo electoral district of Nasser City, the Muslim Brotherhood's lone female candidate, Makarim Eldeiri, is focusing on family values and, of course, Islam in her campaign.

"Our message is that Islam is the solution, and this is a complete program for all aspects of government and family life," she says.

While it's no surprise that a Brotherhood candidate would stress Islam, what is worrying to many is the affect that her campaign has had on her opponent. Faced with a strong challenge from Ms. Eldeiri, the ruling party incumbent has responded by adopting "The Koran is the solution" as his slogan.

The phenomenon has repeated itself in other districts.

The ruling National Democratic Party nominated just two Coptic parliamentary candidates out of a total of 444 this year.

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.

"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.

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