CAIRO — The long banned Muslim Brotherhood said Tuesday it will form a political party once democracy is established in Egypt but promised not to field a candidate for president, trying to allay fears at home and abroad that it seeks power. Still, the fundamentalist movement is poised to be a significant player in the new order.
Egypt's new military rulers gave a strong sign they recognize that the Brotherhood, which calls for creation of an Islamic state in the Arab world's most populous nation, can no longer be barred from politics after the mass uprising that forced out President Hosni Mubarak with 18 days of protests.
The Armed Forces Supreme Council included a former Brotherhood lawmaker on an eight-member panel tasked with amending the constitution enough to allow democratic elections later this year.
The panel is comprised of legal experts of various ideologies, including secular liberal scholars and three judges from the current Supreme Constitutional Court, one of them a Christian, Maher Sami Youssef. The changes aim to open the field for political parties to form, loosen restrictions on who can run for president and write in guarantees to prevent the rampant election rigging that ensured Mubarak's ruling party a lock on power.
The panel's head is Tareq el-Bishri, considered one of Egypt's top legal minds. A former judge, he was once a secular leftist but became a prominent thinker in the "moderate Islamic" political trend. He is respected on both sides as a bridge between the movements. Sobhi Saleh, the Brotherhood representative, was jailed for three days during the protests.
The military is pushing ahead with a quick transition. Generals on the council said the military wants to hand power to a government and elected president within six months, the firmest timetable yet outlined. The constitutional panel has 10 days to propose its changes to be put to a referendum.
In Washington, President Barack Obama praised Egypt's military council for working toward elections and a return of civilian control.
"Egypt's going to require help in building democratic institutions, for strengthening an economy that's taken a hit. So far, at least, we're seeing the right signals coming out of Egypt," Obama said.
The potential that the Brotherhood will emerge from Egypt's upheaval with greater influence has worried many Egyptians. It also raised alarms in neighboring Israel and among some in the United States, fearing a spread of Islamic militancy in the region. During his 29 years in power, Mubarak stoked such concerns at home and abroad, depicting his authoritarian grip as the only thing standing between Egypt and a Brotherhood takeover.
But many in Egypt contend the Brotherhood's strength is exaggerated. Police crackdowns on the group raised sympathy for it in some quarters. Government restrictions kept liberal opposition parties weak, meaning the Brotherhood was the only organized vehicle for action against the regime. Public apathy at elections made the more motivated pro-Brotherhood voters loom larger.
"If the freedom to create political parties is seriously allowed, the Muslim Brotherhood will be part of the scene, but just not all the scene as they were in the past regime," said Ammar Ali Hassan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic movements.
Last week, Obama played down the Brotherhood's power, calling it only "one faction in Egypt" that does not enjoy majority support.
The wave of protests that ousted Mubarak may have hurt the Brotherhood's popularity, as well.
The group initially balked at joining the demonstrations when they began Jan. 25, until its younger cadres forced its leadership to join, fearing they would be left behind. Hundreds of thousands from across the spectrum of Egyptian society joined the protests. Brotherhood youth were a major source of manpower and organizational experience, but they never became the majority.
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