Hope, Fear as Muslim Brotherhood Is on Ballot

Hope, Fear as Muslim Brotherhood Is on Ballot

Hope, Fear as Muslim Brotherhood Is on Ballot
BY ELI LAKE – Staff Reporter of the Sun

CAIRO, Egypt – On a cool Monday evening in the Heliopolis section of Cairo, Mohammed Mahmoud, perched on the bed of a pick up truck, eggs on hundreds of marchers with the question "Who are we?" With near-military precision, the faithful standing in perfect rows of three across respond: "We are the Muslim Brothers."

Welcome to the first election in Egypt in which the Muslim Brotherhood has been allowed to campaign freely, a fact that is being greeted with a mix of hope and fear in a country that still technically bans this organization that openly seeks an Islamic Republic.

Voters will go to the polls today to vote for members of parliament and an advisory Shura Council. This election isn’t as free as the ones held yesterday around America. President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is expected to maintain its wide majority. Nonetheless, the shift is important. For the first time in the state’s history, the 77-year-old Muslim Brotherhood is plastering streets with banners and posters that read "Islam is the solution." And while the group has renounced political violence for decades, some of its former leaders, such as Sayid Qutb, inspired master terrorists like Al Qaeda’s Egyptian-born deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

"There has been a space of freedom opened up here in which we are allowed to finally say, ’We are the brotherhood.’ The regime gave us more space to work with the people," female candidate Makarim Eldery, who dresses in the hijab, said in an interview from the group’s headquarters at Nasser City, a neighborhood named for the Egyptian president who banned the brotherhood in 1954 after alleging that its members attempted to assassinate him. On Ms. Eldery’s desk there were flags of Egypt and the Muslim Brothers and two swords framing a copy of the Koran.

An Islamic literature professor at al-Ahram University, Ms. Eldery is one of 150 candidates the brotherhood is fielding in this round of elections to compete for seats in the 453-member parliament and the 264-seat Shura council. The first round of voting begins today with other regions voting later this month.

In interviews yesterday, two brotherhood candidates representing Nasser City and Heliopolis expressed a newfound willingness to compromise with the regime here. One candidate, Essam Mokhtar, after a long rant against American foreign policy, conceded that President Bush’s emphasis on spreading democracy in the Middle East may have helped convince Mr. Mubarak to grant him and his fellow brotherhood members the political freedom to campaign publicly. But soon after he said this, he joked, "Don’t print that, it will damage me."

An analyst of Egyptian politics here, Josh Stacher said yesterday that he has been impressed with how pragmatically the Muslim Brotherhood has approached the elections. "They have not aggravated or taunted the regime," he said. Indeed, at brotherhood rallies – as opposed those of the largely secular opposition movement known as Kafiya, or "enough" – the street organizers are careful not to insult Mr. Mubarak. One Kafiya organizer even noted that the brothers at larger opposition rallies have a signal – a high-pitched whistle – to instruct their members to remain silent when a candidate from another party says anything negative about the Egyptian leader or the ruling party.

"The 1,000-mile journey starts with one step," Mr. Mokhtar said. "We won’t be able to fix all the problems here at once. We are now trying to tell the NDP that we don’t take power from you now, we just want to express our views. We say, ’Maybe you will agree and we will work together.’"

At the same time, the long-term vision of the brothers is a radical one in a modern state that has prided itself on its separation of mosque and state. Yesterday, the candidates said they eventually wanted to alter Egypt’s constitution so it would not "contradict Islam." "We are all Egyptians," Ms. Eldery said. "As Muslims and Christians, we want to be ruled by Sharia law, but we believe that Muslims and Christians are equal under that law."

In some areas, brotherhood members have found allies within the secular opposition. For example, a law that charges the ruling party to oversee elections and so limits opposition power has become a shared point of contention during the campaign. Like Kafiya, the brothers have campaigned on loosening if not eliminating the emergency law, which gives the state the power to arrest and detain its enemies without charging them and has created a constellation of military courts.

At the same time, the overtly religious agenda of the brotherhood has worried some Kafiya members. "When anyone uses a religious slogan, it is very dangerous," Kafiya’s national coordinator, George Ishak, said.

"We don’t like this way of thinking. There are too many with the slogan of Islam. It is dangerous because if you use the religious issue, it is difficult to discuss. There is a feeling that Coptic Christians will be afraid. It could turn people on each other."

Last month in Alexandria, hundreds of Muslims marched to protest the screening of a play in a Christian theater that was deemed anti-Islamic. The brotherhood, however, has said they had nothing to do with the demonstration.