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On eve of power, Egypt Islamists show moderation

After decades of dreaming of power, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood finally comes face to face with the question of how to use it, as a new parliament that it dominates opens Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After decades of dreaming of power, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood finally comes face to face with the question of how to use it, as a new parliament that it dominates opens Monday.

The fundamentalist group has eased off talk of Islamic-style legislation, saying it will focus on fixing Egypt's ailing economy, and it has even backed off introducing further explicit Islamic references in the new constitution it will have a major hand in writing. But it has other tools to push Egypt toward greater religious conservativism.

The Brotherhood's caution in its Islamic rhetoric and parliament agenda reflect its worries of a backlash against it at a time when Egypt's politics are still in major flux. Egyptians are eager to see quick improvements in an economy that has been battered by turmoil and mismanagement since the fall of Hosni Mubarak nearly a year ago.

They also want signs of long-term change in a system where corruption was rife, nearly half the population fell to the edge of poverty or below, young people searched in vain for jobs and for housing and neighborhoods were left to fall into dilapidation as Mubarak's regime built clean new suburbs for the few wealthy.

Moreover, how much authority the Brotherhood will have to bring changes remains unsettled. The military, which took over when Mubarak was ousted, holds ultimate power for at least six more months. The Brotherhood and ruling generals are expected to jostle and cajole each other over dividing power, and the Brotherhood is wary of moves that could cause a clash.

"We can't talk about implementing Islamic Shariah law when the country is experiencing such devastating economic problems," said Mohammed Gouda, a Brotherhood policymaker and member of the party's economic committee.

The Brotherhood feels little need to push through legislation enforcing an Islamic vision, he and other members say, especially since Egyptian society is already deeply religious and conservative. More effective, they say, is influencing the culture. Brotherhood members show a confidence that they can show a "correct" example of Islam that will bring the public into their way of life.

Indeed, Gouda said that the Egyptian public is "already convinced" and doesn't need much persuasion.

He pointed to the dramatic spread of the Muslim headscarf among women in past decades. In the past, few women wore it, but now it is nearly universal among Muslim women in Egypt as society has grown more conservative. He and others shrug off the need for laws on traditionally "Islamic " issues such as banning alcohol and encouraging or even requiring gender segregation and Islamic dress.

Critics in Egypt worry that the Brotherhood is only biding its time to bring a more Islamic agenda, and their greatest fear is of a long-term understanding between the Brotherhood and military to run the country, even after the generals step aside for a civilian president, due to take place by late June.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report Sunday that the West must recognize that Islamists are "the majority preference" in Egypt and other Arab countries and will naturally grow stronger in a democratic system.

But it said pressure must be maintained to ensure respect for human rights.

The Brotherhood has been "saying the right things" but "we have to see how they govern and how they deal with women, religious minorities. These are the big questions," said HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth.

By any measure, it will be an unprecedented moment on Monday with the convening of the first parliament since last year's dramatic wave of protests led to the Feb. 11 fall of Mubarak after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule. The protests were led by leftist and secular youth, but the free elections that resulted — Egypt's first in living memory — were a prize for Islamists, particularly the Brotherhood, which was banned under Mubarak.

In the parliament chamber Monday, 47 percent of the 498 lawmakers will belong to the Brotherhood, including the parliament speaker. Another quarter will be Salafis, a more radical Islamic group who only a year ago shunned democracy as a violation of God's law but who now see government as the way to bring it about.

Parliament's biggest upcoming task is the writing of the new constitution. It is to form a 100-member assembly to draft the document, though the military is pressing for a say as well, and the Brotherhood is under pressure to ensure secular and liberal voices have an equal say with Islamists.

The Brotherhood says it does not intend to enshrine further Islamic structures into the new charter, beyond its current Article 2, which says principles of Islamic law are "the main basis" for legislation in Egypt.

The phrasing is broad enough to mean almost whatever those in power want it to mean. Mubarak's nominally secular regime did little to legislate Shariah beyond family laws, but future decision-makers could cite the clause to insist on expanding Shariah's scope.

Instead, the Brotherhood's priority in the constitution is, again, political more than religious. It wants to restructure Egypt's system where the president had overwhelming power — the legal grounding for Mubarak's authoritarian rule.

For months, the Brotherhood advocated a strictly parliamentary system. That raised criticism that it seeks to concentrate power in a body that it is likely to dominate for the foreseeable future, so it has shifted to advocating a mixed system sharing powers between president and parliament.

In parliament itself, the focus will be on the economy, said Gouda.

The Brotherhood's economic platform, as much as it is spelled out, is strongly liberal capitalist, reflecting the business and professional backgrounds of many of its members, so much so that it has come under criticism from the left for neglecting "social justice."

Gouda said the group's priority is stability to encourage investment. It wants to tackle corruption by activating a consumer protection law that was introduced under Mubarak but sat idle, and by making regulatory bodies independent so they can do their work without corruption.

"We will set up a system to encourage people to report those who offer bribes, and actually make sure laws that protect consumers be applied," he said.

For spreading its conservative ideology through the culture, the Brotherhood already boasts a nationwide system of charities and social work. If it gains positions in government as well as parliament, it could have further tools, including greater influence over the powerful state television and other media — which it has always been shut out of. Some Brotherhood figures have spoken of the Education Ministry as a key sector.

The Brotherhood, however, may face a challenge to this gradualist approach from the right.

The Salafis who form the second largest bloc in parliament espouse a far more rigid, literalist and uncompromising stance on Shariah. The two blocs were often rivals in the election campaign over the past months, and pressing for more overtly Islamic laws could help the Salafi parties with their base.

"What we may see is that each side will try to out-Muslim the other," said Mohammed Abbas, a young former Brotherhood member who left the group after being frustrated with the group for not giving youth a stronger voice.

Nathan J. Brown, a professor at George Washington University and who studies Middle Eastern Islamist parties said the Salafis "are one of the biggest issues on their mind — almost as big as the military."

The Brothers' worry is that they would be pushed into a more radical stance. They remember the experiences of Islamic movements in Algeria and Palestine, where Islamic groups that were too aggressive brought a backlash. They also don't want to lose their focus on showing they can bring good governance.

"They would never say they are de-emphasizing religion, and I think they are being sincere," Brown said. "For them good governance providing for the needs of people, this is Islam."