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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood faces prospect of democracy amid internal discord

The opening of Egyptian politics is bringing to the fore long-standing rifts among conservative and progressive factions within the Brotherhood. Women and young members for years have lobbied for more prominent roles within the organization.

Until now, those who left the group found it nearly impossible to create new political organizations because Mubarak's government crushed emerging opposition movements.

In the past, only the Brotherhood and Mubarak's National Democratic Party were able to turn out voters, said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

"If there are free and fair elections, we can expect broader voter turnout, and the Brotherhood could lose out," Zarwan said.

The Brotherhood got 88 seats in parliament in the 2005 election, a record showing. It secured none in last fall's parliamentary vote, which the NDP rigged.

In a sign of how Egypt's political landscape is opening, on Saturday, an Egyptian court granted a license to the moderate Islamic movement al-Wasat al-Jadid to establish a party.

The movement, which bills itself as an inclusive group of Islamists, liberals and nationalists, has been trying to establish itself as a party for more than a decade. Because several of its leaders are former Brotherhood members, it is likely to attract voters who in the past would have supported Brotherhood candidates.

"We need at least a year to give a chance to other groups to form, and this will create a balance," said Abu Elela Mady, chairman of the group. "We need many groups that are secular, liberal and religious."

The Brotherhood's leaders were late to endorse the wave of anti-government demonstrations that forced Mubarak to resign Feb 11. But they were quick to hold talks with representatives of Mubarak's embattled regime days before it fell, which angered several of the young activists spearheading the revolt.

"This is an indication that the young people have more awareness than the old guard in the movement," Mahmoud, 31, said. "The Brotherhood always advocated reform, not full change. They didn't expect the revolution, and they were afraid of direct clashes that would lead to mass arrests."

Brotherhood leaders bristle at being labeled fundamentalists. But some of its leaders have supported controversial positions. When the Brotherhood had dozens of lawmakers in parliament, some of them defended female circumcision and the banning of books that they felt depicted Egyptians as deviants.

Whether the movement benefits or suffers from the democratization of Egypt will depend on people like Heba Shahinaz Abd el-Salam.

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