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Islamist Opposition Parties Gaining in Egyptian Elections

In Egypt, there was violence and controversy in the third and final stage of Parliamentary elections. Police shot and killed one protestor, and opponents of the government of Hosni Mubarak say they were prevented by police from entering polling stations.

Many of the opponents are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that also opposes many U.S. policies in the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood has won, so far, 76 seats out of 302 seats contested in the first two stages of the Egyptian parliamentary elections.

That number is expected to go higher when the votes are counted from the final stage of the elections.

The Brotherhood has long been a major political group in Egypt, even though it is banned from overt political activity. Its candidates run as independents -- but everyone knows they are affiliated with the organization. And this time the government, which promised political reform, has allowed them to campaign openly.

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 with the motto: "Islam is the Answer", and wants to establish a state governed by Islamic Law. But its current head, Mohammed Mehdi Akef, says it also wants democracy

"We respect all freedom and believe in rotating power and in the ballot box, now and forever".

In the past, the Brotherhood has been linked to political violence and assassinations. The United States government, which is pushing Egypt and other Middle East countries to be more democratic, has not seemed concerned that an Islamist groups has done well at the polls.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said, "As with any democracy, it is the people who get to choose who governs them. It is important for the legitimacy of any democracy as it moves, that the people have faith and confidence that their will as expressed through the ballot box is reflected in the results of the elections that took place."

Political Islam is now the strongest opposition force in Egypt, according to Dr. Emad Shahin, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. He says the United States needs to acknowledge that. "It is about time that the U.S. administration would develop some kind of a coherent, consistent policy toward dealing with political Islam, moderate political Islam. The possibility of political Islam maintaining good and strong showing in parliaments on the ground as political parties, in terms of social networks, realistic institutions is there."

He continued, "It is a De Facto situation, undoing history or trying to prefabricate societies or engineer societies and so can't be tenable anymore."

Dr. Tamara Kofman, a scholar at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, believes that the U.S. should rethink its policy of shunning all contact with the Muslim Brotherhood:

"I think dialogue with all political forces is useful for gaining information and seeing whether there is room for common understanding. I do not think dialogue in itself implicates one in an outcome. But I can understand why -- given the history of violence in the brotherhood -- the U.S. government is somewhat reluctant or careful about entering in that kind of dialogue."

But Dr. Amr Hamzawi, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C., says the U.S. should not be eager to promote the Brotherhood.

"I am hesitant to see the American administration pushing or pressing Mubarak in the coming one to two years to legalize a political party for the Brotherhood. They will certainly press him to stick to the course of political opening, maybe they will prevent him from sort of repeating the Algerian model of cracking down on Islamists and limiting, minimizing their space."

Emad Shahin says that moderate Islamists should be given an opportunity to prove their commitment to democracy is real. Critics of Islamist groups have said that despite their pronouncements, what the Islamists really believe in is "one man, one vote, one time", if they win, to be followed by theocratic rule.

But the Bush administration continues to urge greater democracy for the Middle East- even if Islamist parties that are hostile to U.S. policies could be the main beneficiaries of that democracy.