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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Finds Going Hard in Race for Parliament

A sister among the Brothers, candidate Boshra al Samani at her campaign headquarters in Alexandria, 22 Nov 2010
A sister among the Brothers, candidate Boshra al Samani at her campaign headquarters in Alexandria, 22 Nov 2010

Days before Egyptians begin the first round of parliamentary voting, rights groups have expressed concern about an increase in security forces cracking down on members of the opposition. High on the list of those facing intimidation are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The administrative court in Egypt's second largest city has ordered that most of the elections there be suspended after earlier orders to reinstate disqualified candidates were ignored.

Boshra al Samani has a kindly face, which in person displays both a patience learned from years of teaching, and a determination that she can become the next lawmaker from Alexandria. But voters would be hard pressed to know this, as most of her campaign posters have been defaced. Gangs, widely believed to be plainclothes police, destroy any images put up by independent candidates who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al Samani, a legally registered candidate with the constitutional right to campaign, finds herself making stealth-like appearances around the northern port town. A supporter with a megaphone explains to workers emerging as their factory shift ends how to recognize her name on the ballot - a critical point in a country where nearly one in three people can't read. The candidate herself explains her platform of women's rights, education and health care.

She lingers for only a few moments, for at every stop, security forces soon descend, and the traveling campaign moves on.

Al Samani considers herself one of the lucky ones.

The candidate notes that just days before in the Delta region around Alexandria, security forces broke up campaign rallies, beating and injuring supporters and throwing some of them in jail.

That same day, in Cairo, a senior Brotherhood member, Saad Katatni, held a news conference to denounce the government's suppression. Hours later, as he drove to his home district south of the capital, a group of men, armed with chains and knives, attacked his vehicle, injuring his driver. The candidate escaped unharmed.

A Human Rights Watch report Wednesday reported that in the weeks leading up Sunday's vote, Egypt has carried out mass, arbitrary arrests and intimidated opposition candidates and activists. The rights group notes that security forces have rounded up hundreds of Brotherhood members, mostly supporters who were handing out flyers or putting up posters. It is not illegal to belong to the Brotherhood, but its roots in religion make it constitutionally banned as a political party. Members run as independents.

A spokesman for the ruling National Democratic Party, Abd Al Hai Ebeid, says the Human Rights Watch report is "pure slander."

Al Hai Ebeid says that the report does the government an injustice. He says he is out on the street and can say that the report is just calumny and that the rights group should not be intervening in such matters. As for individual reports of harrassment, the spokesman says candidates like to make up pretexts for trouble.

The government has repeatedly argued that the choice is between the ruling party, the National Democratic Party, and what it likes to consider the extremists of the Brotherhood. Indeed, many of today's Islamist terror and militant groups look to Egyptian Islamists of the last century for inspiration.

It's an argument picked up by others as well. During a panel discussion recently on VOA, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker seemed to imply a comparison between Egypt's Brotherhood, which renounced extremism decades ago, and Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, which has made violence a hallmark.

"I don't believe they have demonstrated their commitment to democracy," he said. "I think if we want to take an example of this, there's a real laboratory of this in Gaza as to the way the Muslim Brotherhood is going to operate if it ever obtained majority status in a place like Egypt. "

Walker adds that, however unlikely the Brotherhood coming to power might be, it is important to address the legal barriers that keep it from taking a greater part in Egyptian politics.

In the meantime, the Brotherhood does its best to integrate into Egyptian social life, where it is widely praised for providing medical care, education and food for the needy. It has reached out to non-Muslims as well, most recently to protect Egyptian Christians after threats against them by Iraqi terrorists.

The Brotherhood also helps those who find themselves in trouble with government security forces. It is among the groups working to understand what happened to Ahmed Shaaban. The young Alexandria man who was found dead earlier this month after being detained by security members from the same police station implicated in the death of another young man in June.

It is incidents such as these, and the widespread arrests and intimidation noted by Human Rights Watch, that candidate al Samani says undermine the government's argument that the Muslim Brotherhood is the group to be feared.

Al Samani asks, when the security forces beat the people, who then is the terrorist? If someone believes we have done something wrong, she adds, let him come and tell us. She argues that whoever wants to come and discuss it is welcome, they can have a judge, an arbitrator, and the people will decide.

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