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Sobhi Saleh, centre, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former member of parliament, is surrounded by supporters in Cairo.
Sobhi Saleh, centre, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former member of parliament, is surrounded by supporters in Cairo.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood faces internal pressures as it sets out its stall

Brotherhood moderates, many from a younger generation, are resisting control from hard-line leaders, while a budding democracy in Egypt as the country prepares for elections is pushing the Brotherhood to present a more liberal face.

CAIRO // The night breeze carried with it the foul stench from a nearby canal, black with garbage and pollution. The streets jammed with trucks and motorized rickshaws were so shattered that they hardly seemed paved at all.

It was to Cairo's slum of Munib on a recent evening that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamic group, brought its election campaign message: the country must turn to Islam to rebuild.

"Muslims around the world expect great things from you," Essam el Erian, deputy head of the Brotherhood's new political party, told supporters crowded into a tent, with men across the aisle from women in headscarves or black veils. "We have to build a nation of freedom and equality, a nation of the true Islam."

The scene, like many in Egypt now, was inconceivable before President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow on February 11 ouster. Under Mr Mubarak's regime, the Brotherhood was banned. Tens of thousands of its members were arrested, many tortured, and its gatherings were held largely behind closed doors.

Now, with Mr Mubarak gone, the Brotherhood is storming into the open, appealing to religious voters and trying to win over Egypt's poor. It is likely to be part of Egypt's next government, with a hand not only in ruling but also in writing a new constitution. Its strength has fuelled fears among many Egyptians that it will turn what began as a pro-democracy uprising into Islamic rule.

But the Brotherhood's own identity is on the line, and there is pressure from inside and out for it not to go down a sharp-right Islamic road. Internally, Brotherhood moderates, many from a younger generation, are resisting control from hard-line leaders, in a struggle that could fragment the group. And from the outside, a budding democracy is pushing the Brotherhood, at least in public, to present a more liberal face.

How the Brotherhood deals with its new status will be a major test of whether Islamists and democracy can be compatible in the wake of the Middle East's wave of revolutions. With the Brotherhood involved in protests in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Jordan, the answer here could be a model across the region.

Mohammed Osman, a 29-year-old pharmacist who counts himself among the Brotherhood's new generation, says: "We're not ready for power, we don't have the flexibility. To go from prison to power, that could be extremely dangerous."

In one of Cairo's most prominent mosques, the Brotherhood's top leader, Mohammed Badie, paused in the combination sermon-campaign speech he was delivering. A child next to him, with a green Brotherhood sash across his chest, took the cue to break in with a chant.

"God is great!" the boy piped up. The crowd of more than 1,000 men, seated on the carpets of the Amr ibn al As Mosque, echoed back, "God is great, God is great!"

"Egypt's revolution was produced by none other than God Almighty," Mr Badie resumed. "The days of 'no religion in politics and no politics in religion' ended long ago."

The image recalls the nightmares Mr Mubarak's regime often evoked. Without Mr Mubarak's firm grip, his officials warned, the Brotherhood would seize power through the mosque. Women would be forced to wear the headscarf, clerics would hand out punishments such as amputations for thieves and whippings for adulterers, and Egypt's large Christian minority would be consigned to second-class status.

It is an image the Brotherhood is trying to shed as it adapts to the demands of a democratic system.

As Egypt races towards its first free and open parliament elections, planned for September, the Brotherhood's power in the new Egypt comes down to a raw count: how many seats it wins. In this country of 82 million, Egyptians are expected to vote in unprecedented numbers. Their preferences have never been measured before.

The 90-year-old Brotherhood, with its hundreds of thousands of activists, has a leg up on more secular activists scrambling to form parties from scratch. For the first time, it has formed a political party, holding rallies nationwide, from rural towns to urban slums. It has revved up social services that long helped build its following.

Brotherhood leaders say the new Freedom and Justice Party will run for only half of parliament's seats, so it cannot gain a majority: they predict 30 to 40 per cent. Nor will it field a candidate in November's presidential election. It is also trying to form coalitions with other parties, including liberals.

Mr el Erian, the party's deputy head, says parties must work together for several years to entrench a democratic system.

"Maybe after that, everyone can compete without any problems," he told the Associated Press.

Many Brothers style their party in the mould of Turkey's Islamic-based Justice and Development Party, which has held power for nearly a decade by improving the economy without aggressively pushing a religious agenda.

The vision they have for Egypt: a "civil state with an Islamic basis".

It is a vague formula, and the Brotherhood is under pressure to make clear what it means. Decades of oppression provided the group an odd luxury: barred from state-dominated media, it rarely had to sell positions to the public. It could tout broad slogans, like "Islam is the solution," and draw support from resentment of Mr Mubarak.

Now Brotherhood officials on TV talk shows are questioned whether they will ban alcohol or implement Islamic punishments. Their answer: It is not the time. The time may never come, they say, and if it does it will only be with voters' consent.

In a draft, the party's vision for a new constitution mirrors that of most liberals, a parliamentary system with limited powers for the president and guarantees of personal freedoms, a radical change to ensure that no irremovable "pharaoh" like Mr Mubarak can rule.

Absent are past Brotherhood ideas, such as a panel of clerics to advise the government.

"We are for freedom of expression for all, even if it's a communist, a leftist or a secularist," says Aly Khafagy, a 29-year-old party organiser. "Ultimately, the street is the one that rules. If the street is the one that can put us in, it can also put us out."

And "the Islamic basis"? Mr Khafagy depicts it as a democracy that "respects Islamic values," in the vein of US conservatives who talk of America's "Judeo-Christian heritage." For Mohammed Osman, the pharmacist, Tahrir Square during the days of the anti-Mubarak uprising was a "Utopia".

He and other young Brothers were in the square alongside liberal and secular protesters, in what he calls the spirit of openness of the new Brotherhood generation.

It's in contrast to the older Brotherhood leadership, bred on secrecy and tight control. Their attitude is typified in the group's central tenet, "Listen and obey": once leaders make a decision, members have a near-religious duty to follow.

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