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In Egypt vote, Islamist influence grows

The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to triple its numbers in parliament in Wednesday's poll.

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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.

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