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While Egypt Burns, Islamists Savor Victory

Ahead of elections, liberals fear military and Muslims in equal parts

CAIRO – While protestors and police battle each other in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s Islamists are betting that Monday’s elections will secure them a hold on power.

In the midst of near constant violence in downtown Cairo and other cities across the country, Islamists are moving forward with the goal of garnering votes even as activists from secular and liberal movements demand the campaigning end. A week of protests has led to bloodshed that has killed 42 and wounded over 2,000.

But the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), has refused to suspend its campaign and instead has held meetings across Egypt ahead of the vote, where it is expected emerge as the country’s biggest political bloc. SCAF seemed equally determined to ignore the unrest and proceeds. “We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections,” SCAH leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, said in comments Sunday carried by the nation’s official news agency, MENA.

The elections are the first of a series that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ timetable towards a transfer to civilian rule, now promised for July. But secular activists are worried that the army doesn’t plan to really hand over power to a civilian government and, if it does, that the government will be controlled by people intent on imposing Islamic law and other stricture on Egypt.

Islamist activists do not hide their social and political agenda, even if they couch is moderate terms. “It’s the future of the country and I believe we can change things for the better,” a young Islamist university student in Cairo said after attending a small gathering for the FJP on in Giza. The young man, Mahmoud Ibrahim, told The Media Line that the future of Egypt “depends on having conservative values and modesty in the coming period.”

More than 11,000 candidates are vying for 498 seats in a parliament that will draft a new constitution for Egypt. Each voter elects two independent candidates and a party list. The Muslim Brotherhood said Sunday that SCAF should task it with forming a new government if the party emerges with the biggest bloc in Egypt’s legislative elections.

Some of the younger Muslim Brothers have opted to side with the Tahrir Square protests, but most appear to have rallied behind the FJP banner are working at getting out the vote.
“We are going to get as many people elected as [we] can and help make Egypt Islamic like it should be,” said 26-year-old accountant Mustafa Tarek in the middle class Agouza neighborhood of Cairo.

As thousands of Egyptians remain in Tahrir, anger toward the Brotherhood has risen in the days running up to the election, with many of the movement’s members being forced out of the square.

FJP spokesman Said Zinary said he understands the repercussions of not joining the protesters in Tahrir, but he said the FJP did not participate because they felt the “future of Egypt should be done through elections and the democratic process, not by force.”

Analysts expect that Islamic parties will capture between 35% and 50% of the vote, leaving the rest to be shared with a large number of parties representing a wide range of views outside the Islamic spectrum.

Amr Derrag, the head of the FJP in the Giza governorate, said in a recent interview that the future of the country depends on whether political parties listen to the people and express “their demands” for the change that came from the revolution. Derrag is one of the many FJP leaders who originally had been part of the Brotherhood’s leadership who joined the political party when it was formed last summer.

“As a party, we have listened to the people and are trying to deliver them candidates who are representative of what they want in line with our values,” he explained in near perfect English during an interview at his large apartment in Giza.

“We believe that many of the social problems facing Egypt in the past 30 years are a result of women going to work when they have children,” he said. “In order to alleviate these problems and help bring back social stability, we want to offer much larger maternity leave for women and help them move toward their most important duty, raising children.”

Derrag did his best to be diplomatic on these issues, but many in Egypt, including many moderates, wonder what a government with a strong FJP and Islamic tint would mean for the country.

While people like Derrag have proposed change in the form of incentives rather than structure, the Islamists’ positions have many women worried. They fear the rise of parties like the FJP and the more conservative Salafist Al-Nour party will end up severely limiting women’s rights in Egypt.

“I’m extremely worried about what it would mean, with all the talk about not being allowed on beaches and having to be forced to wear certain clothes,” said journalist Rania Mahmoud. She argued that while there are other issues facing voters that are important “the issue of women and our role in making this even possible for these parties to exist should not be discounted.”

Derrag insisted he had no disagreement with non-Islamists, saying that the FJP’s goal is not to end civil liberties “but to guarantee them to all Egyptians, including women and Christians.” He asserted that the Islamists “speak on behalf of what the people want,” but would not elaborate on the group’s plans for governance or its economic platform.

For Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, much talk has surrounded their participation in the election and their possible role as a minority group in an elected government. Derrag and others inside the FJP have repeatedly said they stand for equality among all groups, including the embattled Christian population.

“Christians participated in the revolution and are Egyptians, we don’t want to treat them separately in any form or manner,” he said.