Islamist group makes surprising showing

December 09, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, Egypt -- Nobody, not even the Muslim Brotherhood's members, expected the semi-underground Islamist group to emerge so powerfully in this fall's Egyptian parliamentary elections.

The organization announced yesterday that its candidates had won 88 seats in Parliament, nearly 20 percent of the body's 454 seats, after weeks-long balloting. The victories, which make the Brotherhood a serious force in the legislature, came despite widespread complaints that supporters were attacked with tear gas, bullied and barred from voting.

The surprise gains offer a compelling insight into long-standing questions over just how deep the Muslim Brotherhood's support runs among the massive and scantily polled Egyptian electorate. The apparent eagerness to back an Islamist alternative speaks of widespread frustration with economic and political stagnation in the Arab world's most populous state, but also appears to fit into a broader regional trend of political Islam's gains in elections elsewhere in the Muslim world since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's this whole thing of dividing the world into two camps, with America and the West on one side and Muslims on the other," said Diaa Rashwan, a specialist in Islamist movements with the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "It gives everybody the impression that Islam is in danger and our identity is in danger, so we should choose a way to build ourselves up. Then Islam is the answer."

After decades in which Egyptian politics were marked by an antagonistic, often bloody relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state, the elections herald a shake-up.

For the first time, President Hosni Mubarak's government will be forced to deal with the group as a legitimate opposition party rather than a subversive band of outlaws. Instead of, or perhaps in addition to, rounding up and jailing members of the Brotherhood, the government will now square off against the Islamists in Parliament.

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