Islamists seek a political voice in the new Egypt

By Jeffrey Fleishman

Los Angeles Times

Published: Monday, April 4 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Nageh Ibrahim once spoke of slaying infidels and creating an Islamic state that would stretch from the Nile Delta to the vast deserts of Egypt's south. Today he lives in a high-rise with a view of the Mediterranean Sea and has the soothing voice of a man who could lead a 12-step program on rejecting radicalism.

Ibrahim's group, Gamaa Islamiya, plotted notorious attacks, including the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and the massacre at an ancient Luxor temple that killed 62 people, mostly tourists, in 1997. He spent 24 years in jail reading the Quran and tempering the rage of his youth.

"We were young and we took extreme measures. But now we're old men and our time in prison has made us wiser," he said. "Al-Qaida and Islamic militancy have lost their glamour. Look at what has happened. The young saw that violence didn't bring change to Egypt, a peaceful revolution did."

Ibrahim is one of an increasing number of ultraconservative and moderate Islamists seeking a political voice in a new Egypt. Since the downfall in February of President Hosni Mubarak, who for three decades kept religion far from the center of power, the Islamist message is unshackled. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition party, expects a strong showing in September's parliamentary elections.

The secular reformers and twentysomething urbanites at the vanguard of the Jan. 25 revolution have found themselves eclipsed. They lack experience and grass-roots networks to compete with the Brotherhood and other religious groups that have quietly stoked their passions for this moment. In a sense, Mubarak's obsession with both co-opting and crushing Islamists instilled in them the discipline and organization that now propels their political agendas.

Egypt has long been the touchstone of the Arab world. The protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square that ended with Mubarak slinking off to his villa on the Red Sea riveted the Middle East. That drama suggests that Egypt's post-revolutionary era — its emerging blend of politics and Islam — will have tremendous influence on what evolves in coming generations across the region.

The political Islam popular in Egypt strikes more the tone of the moderate Muslim party running Turkey than the fundamentalist theocracies presiding over Saudi Arabia and Iran. Political parties based solely on religion are still illegal here, but the military council ruling the country has astounded many by permitting Islam a wider role. Analysts suggest this tolerance is calculated so that in coming months the army can hand over the nation to an elected parliament after assurances from the Brotherhood that it will not run a candidate for president.

Egypt is not the only nation where Islamic messages are whispering alongside the clamor of revolt. In Yemen, religious radicals are seeking to exploit anti-government protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally against al-Qaida. In Syria, conservative Sunni Muslims more stridently opposed to Middle East peace than President Bashar Assad could fill the vacuum if his regime is toppled.

The Muslim Brotherhood's calls for a relatively mainstream Islamic government appeals to its majority of educated and professional members. In Egypt's first taste of true democracy, the Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Salafist organizations, however, urged followers that it was their religious duty to vote to approve a referendum on constitutional amendments that benefited Islamists by speeding up elections.

One of Egypt's leading ultraconservative sheiks, Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub, influenced by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi strain of Islam, was quoted as saying after the referendum had passed: "That's it. The country is ours."

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