Mubarak's fall sparks Islamists' rise in politics

The Associated Press
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:48 PM

CAIRO -- For decades under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's Islamists of all shades were disenfranchised, thrown in jail or targeted in crackdown after crackdown. Now their tormentor of some 30 years is gone, and they are rushing to claim a spot in the country's new political landscape.

From the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that long ago renounced violence, to the militant groups that fought Mubarak's forces and gunned down tourists, to the increasingly powerful, ultraconservative Salafis, the different groups are gearing up to contest legislative elections promised by the ruling military within six months.

Happy to be rid at last of their pariah status, they are forming political parties of their own, organizing supporters into committees, and looking at potential candidates to contest what promises to be the country's freest nationwide vote in memory.

The thought of Islamists on the ballot in Egypt may be disconcerting to some at home and abroad, but many in Egypt are seeking to allay such fears by arguing that the parties are not strong enough to win a majority in a free election.

Nonetheless, the Islamists are certain to be a political force in post-Mubarak Egypt. Surprisingly, the 18-day protests that forced Mubarak to step down Feb. 11 have shown that liberal and leftist ideologies enjoy wide support among Egyptians, with their adherents able to counter or even outweigh the Islamists in a national vote.

The appeal of the Islamists in Egypt, a conservative and mostly Muslim nation of 80 million people, is undeniable and growing, partly because many of the country's poor found refuge in their faith as they struggled with the social inequities of daily life.

The Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group, is a good example of the new political order. It is implicitly recognized by the ruling generals as a legitimate group, and one of its supporters was among a small band of legal experts who drafted key constitutional amendments. The group also has declared its intention to set up a political party - the Freedom and Justice Party.

But the Brotherhood also said it had no intention to field a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for later this year.

The extent of the group's strength was manifested five years ago when it made a surprisingly strong showing in legislative elections, winning 20 percent of seats despite the Mubarak regime's use of violence and fraud to swing the vote in favor of the then-ruling National Democratic Party.

The Salafis, whose followers observe the purist rules of Islam's early days, were allowed under Mubarak to grow in strength to counter the Brotherhood.

But those two are not the only Islamist groups now enjoying a level of official tolerance that was unimaginable just weeks ago.

The once-powerful Gamaa al-Islamiyah, a violent group that fought Mubarak's government in an on-and-off insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, is debating whether to form a political party of its own to contest the election. A breakaway faction from the Gamaa also is in the process of forming a party.

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