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Egypt's Most Popular Party Not on Election Ballot



05 September 2005

One of the most influential groups in the Egyptian political scene will not be on the ballot in Wednesday's election. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed for more than 50 years, but it remains such a political power that just about all of the opposition presidential candidates have met with the group's leader during the campaign, in an effort to win votes from Brotherhood supporters.

It has been a sort of political pilgrimage. One after the other, almost all of the opposition contenders for the presidency have paid courtesy calls on the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood.

To some extent, they were hoping for an endorsement from the Brotherhood's supreme guide, Sheikh Mohammed Mahdi Akef, which would have been a tremendous boost to any candidate's chances. At the very least, they were hoping that paying Sheikh Akef a visit might win some votes from his followers.

The anti-government protest movement, known as Kifaya, was hoping the Brotherhood would urge its followers to boycott the election, which Kifaya leaders regard as a farce.

But the Muslim Brotherhood has not done any of those things. The group urged its followers to vote, but it did not back a specific candidate. Sheikh Akef did say, however, that his supporters should not vote for a "tyrant," a clear reference to President Hosni Mubarak, who is seeking re-election.

In an interview with VOA, when asked why he did not support any of the president's opponents, Sheikh Akef was dismissive, saying he saw no reason to.

He asks, "Where is the opposition? If there are 10 parties participating in this election, where are they? I do not see any opposition."

None of the nine opposition parties allowed to take part in the election has even a fraction of the support that the Muslim Brotherhood has. The opposition candidates' largest rallies in Cairo have drawn a few thousand people, in a city of roughly 16-million. The same can be said of President Mubarak's rallies.

It is hard to tell how many Egyptians are actually members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the group's rallies in the past have attracted tens-of-thousands of people.

Mohammed Salah heads the Cairo bureau of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, and is considered an expert on the Islamist movement.

He says the Muslim Brotherhood is an influential political force in Egyptian political life. It may not enjoy legal status, but it has all the tools of a real political organization. They have leadership, popular support and organization. He says it is also important to note that the Brotherhood's members will reliably follow instructions from its leaders, adding to the group's influence.

The group has been officially banned since 1954, when its leaders plotted the assassination of then-Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser. It formally renounced violence in the 1970s, but the ban has never been lifted.

The Brotherhood is tolerated in Egypt, however, even though it is illegal, and a sign in both Arabic and English hangs outside its office door, clearly labeling it the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The state is maintaining a degree of political compromise so those people do not turn to underground work, and then things would be more difficult," Mr. Salah said.

Analysts also say the Brotherhood's ideology has moderated considerably since its founding in 1928.

The spiritual leader, Sheikh Akef, says Islam does not differentiate between religion and politics. He says Islam governs all aspects of life, with directives for behavior that come directly from God.

"This is our vision of Islam and life, and some sons of our nation do not share our views. We have no objection to that. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion," he said.

Some of Sheikh Akef's supporters are reluctant to admit their membership in the banned organization, because of the very real risks it entails.

Hundreds of the movement's followers and several senior leaders were arrested earlier this year in sweeping crackdowns after a series of massive anti-government protests. The government has released most of them in the run-up to the election.

At a smaller protest recently, co-sponsored by the Brotherhood, though, Mohammed Hussein was not afraid to stand in front of a cordon of riot police and express his support for the group.

"I believe having strong beliefs and convictions for an ideology requires you to sacrifice and give up certain things," he said.

When asked whether he is willing to make those sacrifices for his beliefs, he smiles and says, "I think so." But he knows that most Egyptians may not. "A large sector of Egyptian society is preoccupied with economic problems rather than political life," he said.

Since it is banned, the Muslim Brotherhood is naturally not formally recognized as a political party in Egypt. But the group has been able to gain some representation in Parliament in previous elections through members who have run as independents. Sheikh Akef says his group may take the same approach to the parliamentary election later this year, or he may yet decide to back a party during that poll. It will depend to some extent on which parties are allowed to participate.



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