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Under Egypt's Thumb, Islamists Still Seek Office

As elections loom, Cairo cracks down on the Brotherhood

THE election campaign of Muslim Brother Mohamed Abdel Qoudous has turned ugly, and the narrow alleys of Cairo's inner-city slum, Boulaq Abu al-Aile, seethe with a furious, shouting mob.

Police grab chairs that have spilled out of teahouses and throw them at chanting demonstrators. They pull off their leather belts and beat campaigners and bystanders until most disappear down dark alleys or take refuge in the densely packed groceries, barber shops, and repair stores.

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Abdel Qoudous has been arrested three times for allegedly creating public disturbances during his campaign, making him feel more like an accused criminal than someone running for office. "As the election day gets nearer, the police measures get harsher, and they make it more difficult for me to run my campaign," he says.

The journalist is one of about 150 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's oldest and most powerful Islamic movement - competing as independents for parliamentary seats in a Nov. 29 election. But the government has called in the Army to minimize the Brothers' chances of winning in what analysts say is part of a long-term plan to destroy the Islamic opposition.

The government has been fairly successful in suppressing a violent campaign by armed Islamic groups, such as Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group) and Jihad, and now seems to be turning its attention to the political resistance - Muslim Brotherhood.

That strategy was most clearly demonstrated last Thursday when the Army jailed 54 Brotherhood leaders and shut down the group's main office and newspaper after military trials that were widely condemned by human rights groups.

The verdict capped weeks of police harassment on the campaign trail, and a growing conviction among Muslim Brothers that contesting the election will be a statement of political presence rather than participation.

Official limits on public rallies

Officially all candidates are limited by the emergency law in force since the 1981 assassination of former President Anwar Sadat, which forbids marches and demonstrations and makes it difficult to hold public rallies. But police tend to turn a blind eye to government candidates and target the Brothers, in some cases preventing them from moving freely or speaking to constituents. Most Brotherhood members keep a lower profile than Abdel Qoudous, but their activities are still restricted.

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"We have no opportunity to stay with the people, make an argument with them, and say to them much about our beliefs and our ideas," says Brotherhood candidate Mamoun al-Hodeibi. "We have no opportunity to say anything on the television or the radio, or even in the main newspapers."

Observers say the authorities are more concerned about the campaign than the election. Polls in the run-up to the Nov. 29 election show the Brotherhood will have a chance to spread its ideas and gain publicity. But the group's actual strength at the polls is not a real threat, partly because the government's monopoly on resources and media guarantees a two-thirds majority for the ruling National Democratic Party, and partly because the group, while significant, does not have a huge voter base.

The Brotherhood fielded the second-largest number of candidates belonging to an opposition group, but only enough to compete for about one-third of the 444 seats. And political analyst Mohamed Sayed Said says based on past election results and opinion polls, the Brotherhood would win at most 15 percent of the vote even if the election was conducted with full integrity.

Run-ins with Nasser and Sadat

The Brothers have more money and greater influence among Egypt's middle class than militant groups on the margins of Islamic opposition, says Mr. Said, and are perceived as a greater danger. "I think the state has acted on the impression that the Muslim Brothers are planning a longer term and more peaceful takeover of society, and ... the state, and that the state has to finish off with that probability early on."

Brotherhood had run-ins with former Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sadat, but has been tolerated as a peaceful fundamentalist movement since renouncing violence in the 1970s and turning to the political system to achieve its goal of a state based on strict Islamic law. It operated openly until a year ago when President Hosni Mubarak ended the truce and began accusing the group of cooperating with Muslim militants fighting the government.

The authorities have become less tolerant of the Islamic opposition following attacks against President Mubarak and Egyptian targets abroad, such as the mid-November bombing of Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan. Observers say the militant campaigns have created a siege mentality and left no room for "moderate" fundamentalism.

Instead, the authorities are pressing ahead with their clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. A third military trial began last week; officials say it will prove the Brothers are working together with Jihad, the radical Islamic group responsible for killing Sadat. In recent interviews, Mubarak has also accused the Brotherhood of involvement in terrorist attacks. "The Muslim Brotherhood, Jihad, the Gamaa Islamiya, they are all the same," he told a French daily on Nov. 17.

Diplomats say the Brotherhood is suffering a serious setback that will limit its political influence. But the Muslim Brothers describe the situation as a cat-and-mouse game, one they've learned to play after years of practice with successive governments. They insist the Brotherhood is strong enough to survive, even if suppressive measures scuttle its election chances this week.

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