Egyptian Islamists hit streets

CAIRO,  (UPI) When the banned Muslim Brotherhood organizes a campaign march here, it leaves very little to chance.

Brotherhood cadres avoid using telephones when they plan the event, so as not to alert state security forces. They gather expected attendance rosters from universities and other Brotherhood strongholds and assign committees to paint banners and print signs, members said.

In a country where public political activity –even on the eve of a parliamentary election — remains rare, the Brotherhood”s ability to organize stands out. At its Oct. 25 rally, which attracted some 4,000 supporters and stretched for blocks through the Cairo suburb of Nasser City, specific teams of cadres led chants, stood guard around women protesters, distributed leaflets to passers-by, and directed traffic.

The group”s disciplined approach to politics is one reason analysts say it poses the most serious potential political challenge to the Egyptian government, which has formally banned the group since 1954 but in reality permits it to operate within limits. Frequent crackdowns on the group keep it in check.

The Brotherhood, which seeks to implement Islamic law in the country, has participated in parliamentary elections here since the 1980s by officially running its candidates as independents.

In the last parliamentary elections, held in 2000, the Brotherhood won 17 seats, making it the strongest in a field of weak opposition forces in the 454-seat People”s Assembly. The National Democratic Party, which has dominated politics here since its creation in 1978, holds an overwhelming majority in the parliament, with 388 seats.

The Brotherhood will run 150 candidates in this year”s vote, which begins Nov. 9 and will take place over three weeks. It is hoping to win some 50 seats, but Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, predicts 30 to 40 seats is more realistic.

The Brotherhood attracts many of its followers at an early age, through youth groups in high schools and universities. It has held campus protests for years to agitate for a more religious government, but in the past, did not openly identify them as Brotherhood events.

Emboldened by increased freedom in recent months to express opposition on Cairo”s streets, the group is raising its public profile. At an Oct. 2 university protest, students used the Brotherhood name and slogan, “Islam is the Solution,” for the first time in a quarter-century, Rashwan said. Parliamentary campaign literature also bears the Brotherhood name.

Brotherhood leaders say they do not expect a crackdown before the upcoming election, though they believe the government will tamper with the balloting to reduce the group”s support. “The government is in charge of the voter registration lists and the log books, so there”s no need for brutality. They can play around with the paper,” said Abd El-Monem Abou El Fotouh, a senior Brotherhood member.

The Brotherhood”s Oct. 25 march had two purposes, its organizers said: to show the group”s strength, and to convince regular Egyptians that it is now safe to discuss and join the once-taboo organization.

The march was led off by a group of a dozen young children. The girls were decked out in white frilly dresses and the boys in tiny grey suits and ties. They held flowers and a banner which said,” We Love

You Egypt: Children of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Walking behind them were the two Brotherhood candidates running in the Nasser City district: Makarim Eldery, the group”s lone female candidate, and cadre Essam Mokhatar.

Giant glossy banners bore the Brotherhood logo of crossed scimitars and the Koran. Rows of men linked arm-in-arm marched in clusters of four. Their chants echoed through the streets.

“I”m here to raise the flag of Islam,” said Mustafa Shaban Ramadan, 20, a student of medicine at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. “We have tried all of the other systems — socialism, capitalism — and our problems are getting worse and worse. We want to be ruled by Islam.”

At the tail-end of the protest were hundreds of women, some with faces visible under headscarves and others fully covered under face veils. Some held young babies or pushed strollers as they chanted Brotherhood slogans. “Islam is the light, Koran is the constitution that will guide us,” they said.

The women”s section was at the back “due to security concerns,” said Abd El-Rahman, foreign media coordinator for Eldery”s campaign. In past protests, some women have been beaten or humiliated.

One young woman, a 27-year-old mother of two who gave her name as Om Malek, said that Brotherhood helped give her life religious purpose. “If you want to raise your kids well and raise a good country, you need to join the Brotherhood,” she said.

As the march passed a large shopping mall, cadres in green sashes bearing the group”s name passed out glossy campaign leaflets. Residents stepped out onto balconies to watch the rare event and sing the Egyptian national anthem along with the demonstrators. The uniformed police presence was very light.

Some onlookers said they thought the protest was a good thing for their neighborhood, but others disagreed. “I don”t like this, it is not useful,” said Heba Hamdy, a student at Cairo University, who sat in an air-conditioned café as the rally passed.

Hamdy said that as a Muslim, she prays regularly but chooses not to cover her hair. “Islam is personal, it is not something you have to do. They want to push people, and it”s not right,” she said.