In Egypt Vote, Islamist Influence Grows ; the Muslim Brotherhood Is Expected to Triple Its Numbers in Parliament in Wednesday's Poll

Article excerpt

In electoral districts throughout Egypt, campaign posters reading simply "Islam is the solution," urge voters to choose Muslim Brotherhood candidates for parliament when they go to the polls Wednesday. Ahmed Omar, a literature student, will heed the call.

"I'm not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but I'm voting for them," says Mr. Omar. "They have values, morality, and wisdom and they hold the word of God above all else."

He is not alone. With the opposition group expected to at least triple its numbers in parliament, a significant shift in the country's political dynamic is afoot. Today, for the first time in decades, not a single Muslim Brother sits in jail, and candidates are campaigning openly as Muslim Brothers.

These parliamentary elections, more so than the country's first multi-candidate presidential poll last month, are seen as a test of the government's commitment to reform.

The incorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood into Egyptian politics is a step forward for US democratization efforts in Egypt, and may in fact be a direct response to US pressure.

The Islamist group's rise, however, has led traditionally secular political parties to place added emphasis on religion in order to compete. The result is that women and the country's 10 percent Coptic Christian minority are being squeezed out of politics.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Cairo last June and told audiences that "fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty," many here interpreted it as a call for the Egyptian government to lighten up on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unlike past parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000, when thousands of the group's members were imprisoned, the officially banned Islamic organization is campaigning free of government harassment.

The group, founded in 1928, is running 130 candidates, nearly twice as many candidates as it ran in 2000. They have organized well- attended election rallies across the country and have emerged as the chief threat to the ruling party's stranglehold on parliament.

In the Cairo electoral district of Nasser City, the Muslim Brotherhood's lone female candidate, Makarim Eldeiri, is focusing on family values and, of course, Islam in her campaign.

"Our message is that Islam is the solution, and this is a complete program for all aspects of government and family life," she says.

While it's no surprise that a Brotherhood candidate would stress Islam, what is worrying to many is the affect that her campaign has had on her opponent. Faced with a strong challenge from Ms. Eldeiri, the ruling party incumbent has responded by adopting "The Koran is the solution" as his slogan.

The phenomenon has repeated itself in other districts.

The ruling National Democratic Party nominated just two Coptic parliamentary candidates out of a total of 444 this year.

Though the government here downplays the Muslim-Copt divide, many argue that Egyptian society is more segregated and divided today than it was five, 10 or even 80 years ago. …