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In Egypt, Eid celebrations reflect change

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CAIRO — Egyptians used to wish each other “Eid Mubarak,” which means “a blessed Eid” in Arabic, to mark the three-day-long celebrations at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

With former president Hosni Mubarak under house arrest and a military council firmly in power for now, some here joke that the greeting this year should have been “Eid Field Marshal” — a nod to the rank of council head Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

As the holiday ticked toward its conclusion Thursday without the man who dominated Egyptian life for three decades, it felt profoundly different from previous Eid al-Fitr seasons, filled with political campaigning that for the first time in memory reflected real choices.

Egyptians must elect a parliament, in a vote scheduled for November, and soon thereafter pick a president and write a constitution. Presidential candidates fanned out across the country this week to celebrate the holiday in their home towns or in mosques in electorally strategic areas. And on street corners where Mubarak’s National Democratic Party not long ago handed out trinkets and toys to mark Eid, the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood and other political groups have taken over the gift-giving.

In Cairo’s affluent Mohandessin neighborhood, the green banners of the Brotherhood fluttered in the wind outside the Mostafa al-Mahmoud mosque, previously a place where Mubarak stalwarts worshiped. The banners wished Cairo residents a happy Eid al-Fitr and — in a new step for a country that has largely focused on internal issues since its revolution started in January — appealed for donations for Somali famine relief efforts.

“This mosque was not just where Mubarak’s party came to distribute things,” said Samir al-Shaer, a 62-year-old retired military doctor, as he walked out of the mosque during Eid celebrations. “We called it the government’s mosque.”

Preachers who were “a bit more enlightened” and dared to question the government used to be banned from the mosque, Shaer said. Since Mubarak stepped down, he said, they’ve come back.

“It’s just more free. People can say what they want,” he said.

South of the mosque, near the Israeli Embassy, what some people said they want is the ambassador’s immediate expulsion. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of protesters have gathered outside the building to press that demand in the two weeks since a cross-border raid into Israel by Palestinian militants and subsequent retaliatory action left several dead on both sides and diplomatic relations at their worst in decades. Both countries have bolstered their military presence near the border.

The embassy protests would probably have been quickly quashed under Mubarak, who adopted a conciliatory attitude toward Israel — more conciliatory than many Egyptians liked.

Other changes have been more obvious. Trucks squawking Eid greetings from the Muslim Brotherhood — by far the best-organized political group in the country — drove around Cairo neighborhoods Monday and Tuesday, and posters advertising its Freedom and Justice Party were everywhere this week, especially in the capital’s poorer areas.

A Brotherhood leader said that competition between his organization and the Salafists — fundamentalist Islamists who were slow to get on board with the revolution but who have since argued for a country more deeply rooted in Islamic law — was exaggerated.

“There’s no tension,” said Essam al-Erian, a reformist in the Brotherhood who is now a top official in its political party. “People pray at whatever mosque makes them comfortable.”

Nevertheless, the Salafists are organizing in a way they weren’t a year ago, analysts said, a development that may cut into the Brotherhood’s support.

The Salafists have “started forming political parties and groups and are getting stronger,” said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Still, he said, he considered it likely that remnants of Mubarak’s now-disbanded party would wind up as the largest force in parliament, because it retains the most name recognition.

Many here say that regardless of who prevails in the elections, they appreciate being able to express themselves.

Before, politics “had to be in the shadows,” said Said Ibrahim, 61, a hospital worker who was at the mosque once dominated by Mubarak’s party. “Now it can be in the open.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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