Islamic Group Seeks Place in a Democratic Egypt

June 18, 2011 - 1:44 PM

CAIRO (AP) — 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.

The 90-year-old Brotherhood, with its hundreds of thousands of activists, has a leg up on more secular activists scrambling to form parties from scratch. For the first time, it has formed a political party, holding rallies nationwide, from rural towns to urban slums.

It has revved up social services that long helped build its following. In the city of Alexandria, young Brothers clean streets and fill potholes. In Kafr Mit Fatek, a tiny Nile Delta farming village, a traveling clinic of Brotherhood doctors gives families free dental work, checkups and gynecological exams.

In a sign of confidence, the group has opened a prominent new Cairo headquarters in a luxury office building proudly emblazoned with its emblem, crossed swords under a Quran with the word "Prepare."

Brotherhood leaders say the new Freedom and Justice Party will run for only half of parliament's seats so it cannot gain a majority — they predict 30-40 percent. Nor will it field a candidate in November's presidential election. It is also trying to form coalitions with other parties, including liberals.

El-Erian, the party's deputy head, says parties must work together for several years to entrench a democratic system.

"Maybe after that, everyone can compete without any problems," he told The Associated Press.

Many Brothers style their party in the mold of Turkey's Islamic-based Justice and Development Party, which has held power for nearly a decade by improving the economy without aggressively pushing a religious agenda.

The vision they have for Egypt: a "civil state with an Islamic basis."

It's a vague formula, and the Brotherhood is under pressure to make clear what it means. Decades of oppression provided the group an odd luxury: Barred from state-dominated media, it rarely had to sell positions to the public. It could tout broad slogans, like "Islam is the solution," and draw support from resentment of Mubarak.

Now Brotherhood officials on TV talk shows are questioned whether they will ban alcohol or implement Islamic punishments. Their answer: It is not the time. The time may never come, they say, and if it does it will only be with voters' consent.

In a draft, the party's vision for a new constitution mirrors that of most liberals, a parliamentary system with limited powers for the president and guarantees of personal freedoms — a radical change to ensure that no irremovable "pharaoh" like Mubarak can rule.

Absent are past Brotherhood ideas, such as a panel of clerics to advise the government.

"We are for freedom of expression for all, even if it's a communist, a leftist or a secularist," says Aly Khafagy, a 29-year-old party organizer. "Ultimately, the street is the one that rules. If the street is the one that can put us in, it can also put us out."

And "the Islamic basis"? Khafagy depicts it as a democracy that "respects Islamic values," in the vein of U.S. conservatives who talk of America's "Judeo-Christian heritage." But from others it sounds far stronger.

"The Brotherhood won't stop and won't be silent and won't accept anything but the complete implementation of Islamic Shariah law," Sobhi Saleh, a former parliament member and now one of the Brotherhood's most active campaigners, told a crowd at a rally in Cairo's Matariya district.

At another rally weeks later, he proclaimed that the Brotherhood "doesn't recognize liberal Muslims or secular Muslims" and vowed that the next government, "God willing, will be Islamist."

The comments raised an uproar. Even some Brotherhood leaders distanced themselves. Opponents warned this was the true Brotherhood — intolerant, convinced it alone represents Islam and determined to rule.

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For Mohammed Osman, the pharmacist, Tahrir Square during the days of the anti-Mubarak uprising was a "Utopia."

He and other young Brothers were in the square alongside liberal and secular protesters, in what he calls the spirit of openness of the new Brotherhood generation.

It's in contrast to the older Brotherhood leadership, bred on secrecy and tight control. Their attitude is typified in the group's central tenet, "Listen and obey": Once leaders make a decision, members have a near-religious duty to follow.

The rifts within the Brotherhood point to troubles in keeping together a movement that covers a range of Islamist ideologies, from the moderate to the deeply conservative. The tighter the leadership tries to control, the more moderates filter away. That could make the movement more hard-line, hurting its broader public support.

Under Mubarak, unity was considered necessary for a movement under constant threat. As a result, the Brotherhood has been like a tribe.

"These are your colleagues, you study with them, you work with them, you get arrested with them. You marry from among them," says Osman, a Brother since high school.

But it can't work that way in politics.

Osman worries election victory could bring out the worst in the Brotherhood — a domineering side, willing to go it alone. Already, he says, the group's leadership is trying to overly control its own party.

"It's as if they are pushing us to leave the Brotherhood," Osman says. "But I can't do that. I want to remain a voice of conscience within the movement."

Despite pledges of independence, the Brotherhood has appointed the three top officers of its Freedom and Justice Party from within its own echelons. The group also prohibits Brothers from taking part in any other political party.

For Osman and some in the new generation, it felt too much like the old ways. They have decided not to actively participate in the party. A few have broken to join competing parties, or are trying to influence the party from within.

In a Nile-side social club, party members from Cairo's sister city, Giza, gathered to elect their local chair. The candidates making their way to the microphone reflected the movement's professional roots — engineers, a surgeon, a urologist, a factory owner, a female lawyer. Several candidates were in their late 30s.

As they spoke of their goals, few mentioned Islam. Instead, they spoke of "bringing the youth into the leadership," ''building a modern Egypt" and "working with other parties on national goals."

Osman's ultimate concern is that the Brotherhood's old mindset could wreck chances for a broad-based government Egypt needs. Some Brotherhood leaders have spoken of an alliance with Egypt's most ultraconservative movement, the Salafis, who reject anything they feel contradicts Islamic law.

The worry was palpable at the first gathering of four new secular-leaning parties. Among the crowd of over 2,000 at a luxury hotel ballroom, the top question was whether the parties can compete with the Brotherhood.

"The time frame is frightening," admitted Naguib Sawiris, a Christian businessman and chief founder of the Free Egyptians Party. "How do we start up a party in 90 days? I don't sleep at night."

The only guide to the Brotherhood's polling strength is from 2005, when it won 20 percent of parliament despite ruling party rigging. The assumption is it would do better in a fair race.

But after the revolution, that is far from certain, argues columnist Wael Abdel-Fattah. The Brotherhood has lost "the glamor of oppression and the protest vote," he says. More Egyptians are politically engaged, including Christians, large parts of the middle class and business interests who worry about economic damage from a Brotherhood win.

It will likely come down to Egypt's silent majority.

"The vast majority of the population, say 70 percent, have nothing to do with Islamists and nothing to do with secularists," Osman says. "Whoever wins them will be the ones who rule Egypt."