Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is fielding more candidates than ever in the parliamentary election that starts Wednesday. The banned group cannot officially be on the ballot, but it is backing scores of independent candidates who are running under the slogan "Islam is the solution." In the last parliament, the Brotherhood had the largest opposition bloc in parliament. VOA's Challiss McDonough has more from the 15th of May City, near Cairo.
In a tiny ground-floor apartment in this working class residential community, women volunteers dressed in Muslim headscarves are assembling campaign materials for their local lawmaker. The green flags and paper hats bear the name Ali Fatah al-Bab, the symbol of a light bulb, and the slogan "Islam is the solution."
Mr. al-Bab is running for his third term in parliament as an independent. But the slogan is a sign of his real affiliation. He is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been officially outlawed in Egypt for decades but is tolerated by the government.
Brotherhood-backed independents won 17 seats in parliament last time around, more than twice as many as any of the registered opposition parties. In this election, the group is fielding more candidates than ever.
"This time is different because of some direct reforms for practicing political rights. The government has promised to make it a just election. When I first ran in 1995, there was no judicial supervision, but this year there will be. We hope there will be much more transparency and honesty," Mr. al-Bab said.
As the Islamist politician speaks, a familiar sound echoes through the window.
It is time for midday prayers in this dusty residential district known as 15th of May City. It is 60 kilometers south of Cairo, and its quiet, orderly streets seem light years removed from the chaos of the capital.
Many residents here work in the factories of the nearby industrial town of Helwan. When he is not in parliament, Mr. al-Bab is one of them - a floor manager in a steel factory.
In a country where few lawmakers actually live in the districts they represent, he says he is connected to this community. "I live here. I work here. My house and my children are here," he said.
But he also thinks his Islamist views are attractive to many voters. He points to Egypt's very real problems - corruption, inequality, poverty. "In Islam, everyone has equal rights and equal duties. So when we say 'Islam is the solution,' we are calling for equal opportunities for everyone. Islam does not differentiate between the president's son and the most ordinary citizen. Everyone is equal under the law," he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in 1954 after trying to assassinate then-Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser. The group renounced violence years ago, and today is thought to be the most popular opposition group in the country. But support is far from universal. Some Egyptians are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood might try to turn Egypt into a restrictive Islamic state, such as neighboring Saudi Arabia. Others simply say religion and politics should not mix.
"Every individual in the country has a right to run and to join a political party. What is not right, and what is not accepted from us is to use the religion and God as a political tool. That is very dangerous. That's scary. That is unacceptable, and that can take the country into a dark age," said Hossam Badrawi, a member of parliament from the ruling National Democratic Party.
About 10 percent of Egyptians are Christian. When he first started his career in politics, Mr. al-Bab says few Christians ventured into his office to ask for constituent services. After two terms in parliament, he says that has changed.
He says he tells them, "You are an Egyptian citizen. I have an obligation to you. Do not think of yourself as a Christian or a Muslim when you come to my office. Nobody is at the door asking your name or where you are from. Our doors are open."
The Egyptian parliament is dominated by the ruling party, which holds about 80 percent of the seats. Many ordinary Egyptians view it as a rubber-stamp for the president's policies. Mr. al-Bab says even though the opposition has only a tiny percentage of the lawmakers, it is still important to have those other voices in parliament.
"We have to recognize that lots of questions in parliament are only raised by the opposition parties or independents, especially when we talk about fraud or corruption," he said.
In this election, the brotherhood is being allowed to operate more openly than it has in the past and sponsor more candidates. The poll is seen as a test not only of Egypt's democratic reforms, but also of the brotherhood's real popularity, which since it is illegal, has always been hard to gauge.
Mr. Badrawi, from the ruling National Democratic Party, suspects the brotherhood might not be quite as popular as generally thought. "The interesting thing is that any organized minority, when it comes to the surface, you can discuss and you can explore. So long as they are in the dark, you get more conspiracy than reality. This election, everybody is under the spot [light]. Now they are running. We know that they are running. Everybody is watching for that. Let's see the real majority of them," he said.
Egyptians will vote for parliament in three stages, depending on where they live. Voters in the Cairo area, including Mr. al-Bab's district, go to the polls Wednesday. Other parts of the country vote on November 20 and December 1.