Islamic group seeks place in a democratic Egypt

By Lee Keath

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 18 2011 2:21 p.m. MDT

In this Thursday, May 12, 2011 photo, Sobhi Saleh, center, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former member of parliament, is surrounded by supporters in Cairo, Egypt. Once forced underground, the Brotherhood is likely to be part of Egypt's new government, fueling fears of Islamic rule. But the Brotherhood's own identity is on the line, and there is pressure from inside and out for it not to go down a sharp-right Islamic road.

Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press

CAIRO — The night breeze blew foul wafts from a nearby canal black with garbage and pollution. The streets jammed with trucks and motorized rickshaws were so shattered that they hardly seemed paved at all.

It was to Cairo's slum of Munib on a recent evening that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamic group, brought its election campaign message: The country must turn to Islam to rebuild.

"Muslims around the world expect great things from you," Essam el-Erian, deputy head of the Brotherhood's new political party, told supporters crowded into a tent, with men across the aisle from women in headscarves or black veils. "We have to build a nation of freedom and equality, a nation of the true Islam."

The scene, like many in Egypt now, was inconceivable before President Hosni Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster. Under Mubarak's autocratic regime, the Brotherhood was banned. Tens of thousands of its members were arrested, many tortured, and its gatherings were held largely behind closed doors.

Now, with Mubarak gone, the Brotherhood is storming into the open, appealing to religious voters and trying to win over Egypt's poor. It is likely to be part of Egypt's next government, with a hand not only in ruling but also in writing a new constitution. And its strength has fueled fears among many Egyptians that it will turn what began as a pro-democracy uprising in the Arab world's most populous nation into Islamic rule.

But the Brotherhood's own identity is on the line, and there is pressure from inside and out for it not to go down a sharp-right Islamic road. Internally, Brotherhood moderates — many from a younger generation — are resisting control from hard-line leaders, in a struggle that could fragment the group. And from the outside, a budding democracy is pushing the Brotherhood, at least in public, to present a more liberal face.

How the Brotherhood deals with its new status will be a major test of whether Islamists and democracy can be compatible in the wake of the Middle East's wave of revolutions. With the Brotherhood involved in protests in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Jordan, the answer here could be a model across the region.

"We're not ready for power, we don't have the flexibility," said Mohammed Osman, a 29-year-old pharmacist who counts himself among the Brotherhood's new generation. "To go from prison to power, that could be extremely dangerous."

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In one of Cairo's most prominent mosques, the Brotherhood's top leader, Mohammed Badie, paused in the combination sermon-campaign speech he was delivering from an ornate niche marking the direction of Islam's holy city of Mecca. A child next to him, with a green Brotherhood sash across his chest, took the cue to break in with a chant.

"God is great!" the boy piped up. The crowd of more than 1,000 men, seated on the carpets of the Amr ibn al-As Mosque, echoed back, "God is great, God is great!"

"Egypt's revolution was produced by none other than God Almighty," Badie resumed. "The days of 'no religion in politics and no politics in religion' ended long ago."

The image recalls the nightmares Mubarak's regime often evoked. Without Mubarak's iron grip, his officials warned, the Brotherhood would seize power through the mosque. Women would be forced to wear the headscarf, clerics would hand out punishments like amputations for thieves and whippings for adulterers, and Egypt's large Christian minority would be consigned to second-class status.

It's an image the Brotherhood is trying to shed as it adapts to the demands of a democratic system.

As Egypt races toward its first free and open parliament elections, planned for September, the Brotherhood's power in the new Egypt comes down to a raw count: How many seats it wins. In this country of 80 million, Egyptians are expected to vote in unprecedented numbers. Their preferences have never been measured before.

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