Muslim Brotherhood in Ascent in Egypt

The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 28, 2006; 5:00 AM

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt's largest Islamic opposition group is asserting itself as the main challenger to President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime, overshadowing secular reform groups a year after winning nearly one-fifth the seats in parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially banned in 1954, is increasing its influence in powerful trade unions and using its new weight in parliament to issue challenges to Mubarak's administration. The group, which still has limited power, is also working behind the scenes to rebuild its ranks: waiting, perhaps, to make bigger public moves.

The renewed vigor of the nearly 80-year-old group dates to last year's parliamentary elections, which saw Brotherhood candidates _ who ran as independents _ win an unprecedented 88 seats in the 454-member parliament.

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.

In another sign of its growing influence, the Brotherhood last week forced parliament to debate a vote of no-confidence in the minister of culture, a longtime 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.

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 war between Israel and Hezbollah, 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.

To win support from workers, the Brotherhood 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.

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