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Egypt keeps Muslim Brotherhood boxed in

Cairo is open to political reform, but won't include Islamic group.

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Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief is explaining to a small group of reporters his government's commitment to democracy. He promises that restrictions on political parties will soon be eased to allow for real political competition.

But when asked if the regime will legalize the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular and best-organized opposition group, a bit of steel creeps into his congenial tone. "Never,'' he says. The Brotherhood "will never be a political party."

The Brotherhood - which has provided the intellectual seeds for peaceful Islamist political organizations throughout the world as well as Islamist terrorist groups - is at the center of calls for more democracy not just in Egypt, but in much of the Arab world.

And in this restless Arab spring, the 77-year-old organization, which favors Islamic law and says it's committed to democracy, has been roused from a public slumber. Worried that the proactive steps taken by secular Egyptian reformers like the Kifaya (Enough) Movement could cost the Brotherhood its position as Egypt's leading opposition movement has stirred the organization into action.

In recent months it has organized demonstrations and in turn been hit hard by the government. Thousands of leaders and activists have been arrested in the past two months and more than 800 remain in government custody. In an interview, senior Brotherhood leader Abdul Moneim Abul Futuh alleges one of the arrested, who has since been released, was "severely" tortured while in custody.

Brotherhood leaders say democracy isn't possible unless they and their vast constituency are allowed a voice. The Egyptian government is just as forceful in asserting that any system that allows them a route to power will end in a new form of dictatorship.

A violent past

In most of the Arab dictatorships, Islamist organizations are the principal opposition, and if they come to power are likely to dramatically reconfigure their societies and their relations with the US.

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