Police clash with Islamists -Muslim Brotherhood members gain seats in Egyptian elections
November 27, 2005
Egyptian police harass voters and arrest Islamists By Amil Khan and Tom Perry
Islamists build parliament bloc despite vote curbs
CAIRO (Reuters) - The Muslim Brotherhood built its strength in Egypt's parliament this weekend, winning 29 seats in elections despite restrictions on voting and arrests of its supporters, official results showed on Sunday.
The Islamist group has now won 76 seats -- more than five times the number it held in the outgoing chamber. About a third of parliament's 444 elected places have still to be decided.
The officially banned Brotherhood is contesting only a third of the seats, not posing a challenge to control over parliament by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which won 75 places in voting on Saturday, bringing its total to about 195.
But the Brotherhood's wins have shown the weight of political Islam as the strongest opposition force in Egypt and caught the government and NDP off guard.
The authorities have curbed leeway given to the Islamists in the early stages of voting. Police restricted voting and detained 860 of the Brotherhood's activists on Saturday -- the fourth of six days of legislative elections.
Riot police cordoned off polling stations in Brotherhood strongholds, either preventing anybody from voting or allowing only a trickle of people to cast ballots.
"The aim was to prevent voters from reaching the ballot boxes and to affect the result," Brotherhood deputy leader Mohamed Habib told Reuters. "But with perseverance the people and the Brotherhood were able to overcome the barriers."
The Brotherhood said its candidate in the oasis town of Fayoum south of Cairo had defeated high-ranking NDP official and former deputy Prime Minister Youssef Wali.
A Brotherhood candidate also defeated Khaled Mohieldin, head of the opposition Tagammu Party and one of the last surviving leaders of the 1952 coup which overthrew the monarchy, the Brotherhood said.
Secular opposition parties have won only a handful of seats so far. Two candidates from the liberal Wafd Party won seats on Saturday.
Monitors said NDP supporters and the Brotherhood had brawled in places. Armed thugs attacked Brotherhood supporters with machetes in at least one town, witnesses and the victims said.
Police also tried to stop journalists reporting freely. Reporters working for the French agency AFP, Reuters, the British Broadcasting Corporation and the U.S.-based Associated Press all said they had been harassed or had equipment or papers seized.
The Brotherhood, which advocates political freedoms and wants to bring legislation closer to Islamic law, is fielding candidates for 49 of the 136 seats at stake in the final round beginning on December 1.
Egyptian police prevent voting in villages
SANDOUB, Egypt - Riot police cordoned off polling stations Thursday in this Nile Delta village and several other Muslim Brotherhood and opposition strongholds to prevent people from voting in a final round of legislative elections marred by violence and allegations of rigging.
In one village, men and women determined to vote resorted to sneaking into the polling station, putting up ladders to climb over back walls - out of sight of police barring the entrance - and slipping through bathroom windows to get in.
Voting proceeded normally in some towns, but in two villages visited by an Associated Press reporter - one the hometown of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, the other of an independent candidate - police were blocking voters. In some southern towns, voters were intimidated by lines of police outside stations.
"I'm calling on his excellency, the president, to appoint the members of parliament because no one has been allowed to vote. ... It would save the money wasted on elections," Sameer Fikri, a would-be voter in the village of Sandoub, said sarcastically.
Under U.S. pressure to bring democratic reforms, President Hosni Mubarak's government gave the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic movement, considerable leeway to campaign in the early stages of the three-part elections.
But police interference has intensified in the later rounds, after the Brotherhood scored unexpectedly large gains, increasing its representation in parliament more than fivefold.
Hundreds of people lined up in front of a school used as a polling station in Sandoub, 75 miles north of Cairo - the hometown of Brotherhood candidate Saber Zakher - but they were prevented from approaching by lines of riot police, armed with sticks, rifles and tear gas.
A police lieutenant said "I don't know" when asked why both polling stations in the village had been cordoned off. An AP reporter was barred from entering to ask the judges in the polling stations.
In the nearby town of Bussat, the smell of tear gas hung in the air as angry would-be voters shouted at police blocking the station. "There are no human rights here, only war and destruction," said resident Mustafa Mohammed. Behind the polling station, men and women clambered up ladders over the wall.
An independent candidate not connected to the Brotherhood, Faisal Ibrahim Hassanein, is running against a candidate from the ruling National Democratic Party in the Bussat area.
More than 10 million Egyptians were eligible to vote in Thursday's third and final round, where the last 136 of parliament's 454 seats were being contested. Runoff elections will be held Dec. 7 in districts where no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote.
In the two earlier rounds of polling last month, Brotherhood candidates won 76 seats, up from 15 in the outgoing assembly. The NDP has won 201 seats, and other independent or opposition candidates have taken 25.
The Brotherhood, which has campaigned under the slogan "Islam is the solution," has been banned since 1954, but it has long been somewhat tolerated. Its candidates run as independents, although their allegiance to the Brotherhood is known to voters.
The first-round vote and runoff saw little violence, but after the Brotherhood's strong showing, there was a crackdown in the second round and a runoff, with police and government supporters blocking or assaulting Brotherhood loyalists from some polling stations. At least one person has been killed.
The Paris-based press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, has condemned government-inspired violence and harassment, and Amnesty International has expressed concern over the second-round violence.
More than 500 Brotherhood supporters were arrested earlier this week, police said. About 1,300 Brotherhood loyalists are believed to have been arrested since polling began on Nov. 9. Many have been released, but hundreds are still in custody.
On Thursday, voting was light but unhindered in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig. Voters walked into adjacent schools turned into polling stations - one for men, one for women - in a district where outspoken Muslim Brotherhood legislator Mohammed Morsi is seeking re-election.
Morsi, the leader of the Brotherhood-backed candidates in the outgoing parliament, has been a thorn in the government's side for the past five years. But the NDP appeared not to have made a large effort to mobilize voters, as it did in Cairo constituencies where significant Brotherhood candidates ran last month.
In Tahta, 280 miles south of Cairo, 500 police were on roads leading to the polling station. Voters were not denied access, but some said they were afraid to cross the police ranks.
"I heard that the police have arrested so many people, especially those who vote for Brotherhood," said voter Ahmed Mohammed Abdel Salam, who supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
In nearby Shatoura, large numbers of police were also outside the town's lone polling station. Police said they were there to prevent violence.
Islamic Groups "Slither" into Egyptian Society
By Betsy Hiel
CAIRO, Egypt — Gamal Sultan sits in his home office near Ain Shams University, where students often stage anti-American protests, and rants against U.S. policies in the region.
"America is a supporter of tyranny and oppression," Sultan says. Once a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, he was imprisoned in the 1980s after the terror group assassinated Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat.
In another part of the city, Kamal Habib fingers amber prayer beads and speculates that Arab regimes "feel endangered by the United States and will move closer to the Islamists." A former deputy emir of Islamic Jihad, he spent more than a decade in prison for helping to plot Sadat's assassination.
Sultan and Habib belong to a movement that, for decades, has tried to turn Egypt into an Islamist state. Its bloody battle tore the country apart through the 1990s.
Both are connected to Pittsburgh, too: They wrote for Assirat Al-Mustaqeem, an Arabic-language magazine embracing radical, anti-U.S. views that was published in the city from 1991 to 2000.
Sultan traveled to Pittsburgh in 2000 and remembers other Islamists calling it the "Kandahar of America." The hilly terrain reminded them of the Afghan city that was a base of the now-deposed Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
The clash between mosque and state in many Muslim nations is not just a threat to those regimes, experts here say; it threatens U.S. strategic interests as well. An Islamist victory in a nation like Egypt could enable terrorists to strike America even more easily, especially given the links between foreign radicals and U.S. groups uncovered since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"These governments can't keep America's interests safe anymore," says Negad Borai, an Egyptian human-rights lawyer and democracy activist. Worse, the troubled regimes have "exported their problems … these fundamentalist ideas and terrorism, to the West."
Authoritarian regimes also have driven their own citizens to the Islamists, Borai and other experts say. Embittered by official corruption, the jailing and torture of dissidents, and grinding poverty in crumbling cities, many people see the activist Islamists as the only option, since moderate opposition groups are generally banned.
Radicals have fought to establish rule by the Quran and shariah, or Islamic law, since at least the 1920s, when the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood formed here. The Brotherhood is considered the father of scores of modern Islamic movements.
In Egypt — America's largest Arab ally — the long, deadly fight continues. But the "holy warriors" use different tactics now.
'Defeated on the street'
In 1981, gunmen of the Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group, or Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, killed Sadat during a military parade, then battled the Egyptian state for nearly two decades. They also targeted minority Coptic Christians, liberals and intellectuals — killing writer Farag Foda in one attack, stabbing Nobel Laureate author Naguib Mafouz in another.
In 1997, the Islamic Group slaughtered 58 foreigners and six Egyptians in Luxor, a popular tourist site. The attack turned most Egyptians against the movement, radical leaders now acknowledge.
Today, the government of Hosni Mubarak appears triumphant, says Emad Shahin, an expert on Islamic movements at American University in Cairo. Many militants remain imprisoned; the Muslim Brotherhood is banned from politics — though its leaders operate relatively openly. The government refuses to authorize new religiously based political parties.
But the Islamists are far from vanquished, Shahin says. "It doesn't mean that they are losing their popularity. It means that they are not as outspoken and explicit as their constituents would like them to be, but they are still there."
While the regime appears to control its security, public opinion increasingly favors religion over the government, he and others say.
"I believe Egypt was victorious by being able to stop the jihadi (holy warrior) operations," says Nabil Sharif El Din, a former state security officer, "but it was defeated on the street. The simple Egyptian has come to adopt the ideas of the Islamists, even if (he is) not a member of the group."
Sharif El Din, who fought the Islamists for 15 years, sees a growing number of veiled women on Cairo streets as a sign that Egyptian society is turning more religious.
"This is the fruit the Muslim Brotherhood is reaping from the spilled blood of the jihadis," he says.
Abdel-Monein Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, agrees. "What has happened during the past three-quarters of a century is that the balance between religion and state has become so skewed as to give rise to the Taliban, and under its protective wing, al-Qaida," he wrote recently.
Shahin, the university expert, says the U.S.-led war on terror — and, now, a looming war with Iraq — is persuading more Arabs to see the Islamists as "the people who can still resist, who can still say 'no' to the elements of globalization and international hegemony."
Disguised as moderates
Sharif El Din, the former security officer, sees another danger from "opportunistic and maneuvering groups" claiming to be reformed moderates.
The only difference between the radicals, he declares, is the means used to reach their goals. "The Muslim Brotherhood way is to slither into all of the institutions of the society."
Meanwhile, imprisoned militants are renouncing violence; eight Islamic Group leaders published books with titles such as "Shedding Light on the Errors of Jihad." All have denounced bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Former jihadist Gamal Sultan is forming a new political party called Islah (Reform). Although Islah wants Islamic rule, Sultan insists it endorses democracy, free speech, a free press and will lead its followers from "secret and violent activity, to public and open activity."
By refusing to grant Islah a license, he warns, Egyptian officials are closing the door on peaceful groups and pushing young Egyptians toward violence: "They become attracted to secret groups, and this is very, very dangerous for the government and the whole world."
Yet even as he professes that "political violence is not justifiable," he quibbles that it is only an "impulsiveness used during particular periods of conflicts. All the parties have used violence."
Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former Egyptian parliamentarian and now a professor at American University in Cairo, says she "would give them the benefit of the doubt, but I am not convinced." Those who claim to renounce violence should "convince us that they really think in a different manner … more democratically, and that they can join in a society that is pluralistic."
Secularists like Sharif El Din and Makram-Ebeid are not alone in their suspicions.
Abou Elela Mady is a moderate Islamist and founder of the Wasat (Center) party. It includes women and Christians, he says, and "accepts plurality." As with Sultan's Islah party, the government refuses to license Wasat.
Mady, who left the Muslim Brotherhood to form Wasat, insists his party is the one true moderate voice among the Islamists. Other groups praise moderation but secretly cling to an ideology that is "scary and difficult to ignore … difficult to deal with because they are combative."
The real meaning of slogans such as the Muslim Brotherhood's "Islam is the Solution" remains unclear, he argues, and Islamists should be forced to openly discuss their attitudes on democracy, women, non-Muslims and international relations. Most, he warns, still reject the government's legitimacy and denounce it as a kafr (infidel) state.
Mady believes "the majority of the Islamic groups want the clash" that bin Laden has encouraged between Muslims and "infidels."
Sharif El Din likens them to a disease: "When you treat them with antibiotics but you don't finish the treatment, the virus becomes more vicious."
With the Egyptian government controlling the political rules, Islamists are concentrating on culture, according to Gamal Ghitani, a novelist and editor-in-chief of the weekly Akhbar Al Adab (Literary News).
Sultan, the former Islamic Jihad member, is an example of the new Islamist direction — and of the links between Islamists in Egypt and the United States.
Besides forming the Islah party, he edits Al Manar al Jadeed, a quarterly Islamist journal. The journal is published in cooperation with the Islamic Assembly of North America in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is connected to a variety of Islamic groups and activities in the United States.
Among those was the Pittsburgh-based magazine, Assirat Al-Mustaqeem. The Islamic Assembly also has had financial ties to Attawheed, a Pittsburgh-based foundation that operates a mosque, a school and other activities.
An Aug. 4 special report by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review detailed the three U.S. groups.
Al Manar's most recent edition contains a diatribe against Egyptian secularists written by Sultan's brother, Mahmoud. Both men wrote in the past for Pittsburgh's Assirat magazine.
The Al Manar article describes Islamists as superior because they follow a moral code, while secularists are loyal only to a "much-trumpeted ideology: the separation of church and state." It accuses secular groups of "parasitic activity," "cronyism" and "political opportunism."
Salah Bedeiwy, a member of the banned Labor party and a writer for Al-Shaab, an Islamist newspaper, insists "we believe 100 percent" in Western-style democracy "because it is perfectly compatible with Islam."
Yet Labor and Al-Shaab recently led a blistering campaign against a novel they deemed un-Islamic. One Al-Shaab headline militantly proclaimed: "God is great! Who will give me his allegiance that he is prepared to die?" The campaign ignited violent protests at Al Azhar University, a center of Egypt's hard-core Islamic scholars.
Officials closed Al-Shaab, but the newspaper posts material — including anti-U.S. declarations and fatwas (Islamic legal opinions) endorsing Palestinian suicide operations — on a Web site.
Bedeiwy denies a contradiction between his professed commitment to democracy, including press freedom, and the book-banning campaign: "The novel humiliated Christianity and Islam."
Such actions disturb secularists and moderate Islamists, however.
"When we talk about democracy, we talk about inclusion," says Makram-Ebeid, the parliamentarian-turned-professor. "Democracy sometimes brings to power people who are not committed to democracy and (who) sometimes even hijack the system."
'Give us five years to win'
Islamists reject such criticism. "Those are the extremist secularists who are non-religious people, mostly leftists, who want to fight against the Islamists and who will use any argument against us," Sultan replies.
But if the Islamists want to be part of Egypt's political system, others say, they must play by the rules. "The major rule is that Islam is a religion and it must continue as a religion," declares human-rights lawyer Borai. "We will not allow them to continue the Saudi Arabian experience," in which religion rules that country's political and social lives.
He, like others, accuses Egypt's government of tolerating the Islamists at the expense of moderates, to make up for its own lack of political legitimacy. "Our people hear two voices. One is the corrupt government, and the other is the fundamentalist through the mosque. The question is, where is the third voice?"
Complaining that religious organizations are more easily established than pro-democracy or human-rights institutes, he wants "an alliance between the civil society and the government against fundamentalism."
Sharif El Din agrees and says Egyptians stand "with the sea in front of them and the enemy behind them," to describe the desperate battle ahead.
Borai also believes Egyptian officials allow the Islamists to flourish, to frighten U.S. officials with the specter of a fundamentalist takeover and ensure continued U.S. aid — a ploy he feels is doomed. Instead, he proposes a timetable for democratic elections: "Give us just five years with real work inside this country, and we can fight against the fundamentalists and we will win."
U.S. help is imperative for a democratic transformation to succeed, he admits. "We want to convince the Americans to assist us to build together a democracy and human rights and to bring freedom to our people."
And to emphasize why America should help, he adds a chilling caution. The Islamists "want to destroy your civilization, and then come back and destroy ours."
Betsy Hiel is a Middle East correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She can be reached at email@example.com.