Muslim Brotherhood on rise to power in Egypt
By Associated Press  November 28, 2006
A year after winning nearly one-fifth of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood is asserting itself as the main challenger to President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime in ways both big and small, overshadowing secular reform groups.

The nation’s largest Islamic opposition still has very limited power here, most experts agree. Nevertheless, it is on the rise — using its new weight in parliament to issue challenges to Mubarak’s regime, while also trying to increase its influence in powerful trade unions.

Meanwhile, the group continues to work behind the scenes to rebuild its ranks, perhaps hoping for a more-opportune moment to make bigger public moves.

The renewed vigor of the nearly 80-year-old group, which was officially banned in 1954, dates to last year’s parliamentary elections, in which Brotherhood candidates — who ran as independents — won an unprecedented 88 seats in the 454-member parliament.

Abdel Monaem Aboul Fatouh, a senior Brotherhood leader, said the political gains have come despite frequent government crackdowns such as arrests of its members, and a general slowing in the pace of democratic reform here.

Egypt canceled local elections after the parliament balloting, and has generally made few additional democratic reforms in recent months. The United States, which had been pressuring Egypt, has publicly backed off a bit at a time when the region is tense because of the summer Hezbollah war and chaos in Iraq.

“It was our determination and our will that put us in the parliament and not the American pressure (for democratic reform) or the (Mubarak) regime’s cosmetic changes,” Aboul Fatouh said.

In recent weeks, the Brotherhood fought a fierce battle to win a significant chunk of seats in powerful trade unions, which include millions of workers in the enormous state-run industries, plus workers in the huge government bureaucracy.

To win support from workers, it reversed its traditional support for free-market policies to come out strongly in support of the state sector. That won it support against Mubarak-allied candidates, because the government wants to move toward privatization and other economic reforms.

The Brotherhood already controls some powerful unions, such as the lawyers and the doctors syndicates, but its power remains limited: When it tried to also field candidates in recent elections for student unions, social clubs and businessmen’s groups, the authorities kept its candidates away.

In another sign of its growing influence, however, the Brotherhood last week forced parliament to debate a vote of no-confidence in the minister of culture, a long-time Mubarak confidante, after the minister said that wearing the hijab, or full Muslim headscarf, was a “step backward” for Egyptian women.

The minister remains in office but secular intellectuals immediately accused the group of using an off-the-cuff remark to bolster its political agenda.

“They (the Brotherhood) are trying to Islamize the society from below to reshape it the way they want,” said Nabil Abdel Fatah, an expert at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.

“Don’t believe the Brotherhood when they say they do not want to take over the country. That is only a pretense,” wrote the government weekly Rose El Youssef in a banner headline.

Despite such moves, the Brotherhood appears to be moving much more slowly — if at all — to expand its influence into more-sensitive parts of Egypt’s society, such as the army and security forces.

Both are considered backbones of Mubarak’s regime and key to ensuring stability.

Both Brotherhood leaders and government officials refuse to discuss publicly any issues related to the army or security forces. But experts say the Brotherhood would hesitate to provoke on the issue — the country’s most sensitive. Politics are banned in the armed forces.

“The Brothers cannot even contemplate coming closer to the army,” said Hossam Tamam, a highly respected expert on the movement. “It is a glaring red line.”

Tamam said the group instead was using its rising political clout to focus on rebuilding its organizations — after severe crackdowns in the 1980s and 1990s — and to train a new generation of leaders.

Meanwhile, speculation remains rife that the 78-year-old Mubarak is preparing to clear the way for his highly ambitious son, Gamal, 42, to succeed him after his fifth term ends in 2011 — despite Mubarak’s denials.

That possibility, though, has led many to believe that the Brotherhood is just biding its time until then, and the period of uncertainty during any such transfer of power.

“They are not in a hurry, they are pragmatic,” said Tamam. “They can wait a little more.”

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