A sour note for Egyptian elections
Monday, March 12,2007 00:00
By Fran Coombs&Willis Witter, Washington Times

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, shaping up as the government’s one real political challenger, says a draft constitutional amendment allowing opponents to challenge Hosni Mubarak for president is so "ridiculous" that the group cannot decide how to respond.
Mohammed Habib, first deputy to the leader of the Brotherhood, told The Washington Times yesterday that the proposed changes, approved by the upper house of parliament yesterday, contain "ridiculous conditions that rob the amendment of its soul and take us back to square one."

"Things would remain as is," he said. "So there seems to be no light at the end of this dark tunnel. ...
"We can summarize the political life in Egypt by saying that there are two extremes -- the ruling party with all its agencies and all its institutions, and the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
Mr. Habib maintained that the Brotherhood sought only gradual change and had taken care not to present itself as an alternative to a government that nevertheless remained "terrified" of it.
"We have even tried not to run a strong presence in the parliamentary elections, so that the regime does not become too concerned in order to avoid further oppression and harassment."
Even though the reforms will require candidates from religious groups to run as independents, the Brotherhood hastaken an increasingly public profile in the last week, with demonstrations it claims have resulted in the arrest of more than 2,000 people, most of whom remain in jail.
The demonstrations have drawn much larger crowds than those of the fledgling Kifaya (Enough) group, which is largely peopled by disaffected intellectuals and former 1960s radicals, or of the Tomorrow party led by Ayman Nour. The latter has received favorable coverage in the Western media but is not taken seriously by most Egyptians, regardless of their political persuasions.
Mohammad Mehdi Akef, the Brotherhood’s leader, known as the supreme guide, charged at a 90-minute press conference in downtown Cairo yesterday that his group had talked with at least one of the country’s officially sanctioned political parties about working together on a slate of candidates. But, he said, the government had "made a deal" with the party not to cooperate with the Brotherhood.
His deputy, Mr. Habib, said later in his cluttered office that the Brotherhood has not decided whether to support a presidential candidate or to sponsor some kind of protest vote in which ballots might be left unmarked or an unlisted candidate written in.
"All things are under consideration," he said.
Once linked to the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and earlier acts of violence, the Brotherhood has for more than two decades espoused a kinder, gentler form of Islam in an increasingly secular Egypt.
It claims it would capture up to 40 percent of the vote if allowed to field a candidate in September elections, despite widespread fear of its call for the imposition of Shariah, or Islamic law.
It still questions whether the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America were done by Muslims or Israel’s Mossad spy agency -- reflecting a widespread belief in the Muslim world.
Mr. Mubarak in February called for a change in Egypt’s constitution that would allow the first multicandidate presidential election in more than 50 years, but critics charge that the proposed language sets a standard that only four token opposition parties can meet. Together, they hold just 13 of 454 seats in Parliament’s powerful lower house.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told The Times last week that Mr. Mubarak is sure to win re-election in September and that the nation’s reform strategy aims to develop credible opposition candidates for the 2011 presidential election.
Mr. Mubarak, who took over after the assassination of Mr. Sadat in 1981, is expected to announce shortly his intention to seek re-election.
Yesterday, the Brotherhood held a boisterous press conference in its modest offices in downtown Cairo to detail a nine-point declaration of principles, which include an end to crackdowns on public demonstrations and the release of all political prisoners.
The government has charged the recently arrested Brotherhood members with illegally demonstrating.
But Mr. Akef said yesterday: "The demonstrations were not a surprise. We had asked for permits for three weeks in advance, and they refused to grant us any permits, conditional or non-conditional."
Speaking through a translator afterward, the soft-spoken Mr. Habib attributed the Brotherhood’s stepped-up protests to concerns about increasing American pressure on Egypt "that reaches to the level of ... interference in our own affairs. ...
"We see the regime backing down in front of that pressure ... because they lack popular support, and that has resulted in the incredible amount of political stagnation we have today."
Mr. Habib also said the public had lost faith in the legal opposition parties "because they are no longer a real opposition to the regime that is completely hated by the people."
The Brotherhood is feared widely in the West because of its violent history dating from its founding in Egypt in the 1920s. It renounced violence in the 1970s but had links to the 1981 assassins of Mr. Sadat, many of whom went on to lead the present-day al Qaeda.
Even so, it functions today as the opposition party in Jordan with few problems, and Mr. Habib said: "There is no difference between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. We are exactly the same. The difference is between the two regimes."
Mr. Habib described a version of Islamic law that sounded more like Jeffersonian democracy than the draconian rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
He spoke, for example, of a government with checks and balances and with independent executive, legislative and judicial branches in which officials would serve for limited terms subject to voter approval.
In an Egypt ruled by the Brotherhood, Mr. Habib said, it would not be a sin to watch television, listen to music or play sports as it was under the Taliban. Ancient pre-Islamic icons and artifacts would be preserved and protected, tourism would be encouraged and foreign visitors would be protected.
Asked how the Brotherhood could convince people it would not change its tune once in power, Mr. Habib said: "We have spoken out against every violent action that has taken place, and no member of the Muslim Brotherhood anywhere has had any role in attacks in the 1980s and ’90s."
Toward the end of the interview, he replied to one of the most vexing questions plaguing Americans since the September 11 attacks: If the Koran describes God as full of mercy and compassion, why do some Muslims think God wants them to fly airplanes into buildings full of people?
He said he was not convinced that Muslims committed the attacks and that it could have been the work of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. As preposterous as such assertions sound to Americans, they remain common throughout the Muslim world, even after Osama bin Laden claimed credit for the attacks on a videotape.
"I notice the appearance of the last of the tapes came right before the last election and that [President] Bush used it to frighten people into voting for him," Mr. Habib said, suggesting the tape was a fabrication.

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