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In Egypt, Islamist runs against the odds
In Egypt, Islamist runs against the odds
A harassed lawyer belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood conducts a shadow campaign for a village council seat.
He has been jailed, his computer has been seized, his blog is tracked by intelligence officials, and Mohammed Shawkat Malt concedes that his latest political quest appears doomed.
Friday, April 4,2008 07:40
by Jeffrey Fleishman LATimes

He has been jailed, his computer has been seized, his blog is tracked by intelligence officials, and Mohammed Shawkat Malt concedes that his latest political quest appears doomed.

A gregarious lawyer in a pale suit, Malt, a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, has filed court appeals to get his name on the ballot for Tuesday"s municipal elections. The government has ignored him, and Malt runs an unofficial shadow campaign with no chance of winning a seat on the council representing this farming village in the Nile Delta.

"I just want to say I"m present. I"m here. I won"t lose hope," said Malt, 50.

Malt and other Muslim Brotherhood candidates across the nation have been barred by local election boards. It is an aggressive tactic by the ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, to weaken the broad support of the Islamist organization, which represents the most significant opposition to President Hosni Mubarak at a time of widening discord over bread lines and inflation.

In recent weeks, more than 1,000 political activists and opposition figures, most of them belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, have been either arrested or detained. The group claims that only 498 of the 5,754 candidates it fielded were certified by election boards. The result: The NDP is expected to win 90% of 52,000 seats on councils representing villages, towns and cities.

Human rights groups have criticized Egypt for erecting a facade of democracy that is supported by about $2 billion in annual U.S. aid. The Bush administration said it was "concerned" about the arrests, but it was advised by NDP officials to not interfere in Egypt"s domestic affairs.

"We lost the hope of having free and fair elections in Egypt," said Mustafa Kamel Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University. "This time all indications point to an election that offers people very little choice."

The Mubarak government has been attempting throughout its more than 26 years in power to marginalize the Islamist organization. The Muslim Brotherhood supports the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip and believes Egypt should be ruled by Islam"s Sharia law. It has renounced violence at home. Its community services, which have highlighted government failings in healthcare and education, receive praise from the middle and educated classes.

"The Muslim Brotherhood did not seek to run for municipal elections as much as they wanted to become newsmakers and play the victim"s role," said Abdullah Kamal, the editor of Rose al Youssef magazine (rosaonline.net) and a staunch proponent of Mubarak"s regime. "This group is based on religious foundations; it embraces ideas that foment terrorism, sectarianism and oppose Egyptian civility."

These are tense political times in Egypt. Privatization and reform have led to economic growth but also to high inflation and unemployment. Labor unrest is growing and there is anxiety over who will succeed the frail, 79-year-old Mubarak. The secular opposition is in disarray and the Muslim Brotherhood is battling internal divisions between moderates and conservatives that suggest inconsistency and poor leadership.

Banned as a political party, the Islamist organization ran candidates as independents in 2005 and won 20% of the seats in the current parliament. The government has since tightened laws to keep the group from making further political gains. Mubarak is concerned that the religious revival across Egypt may embolden radicals and threaten the more secular-minded NDP.

In this village of dirt roads and mud-brick walls, where egrets and donkeys linger in the tall grass of the Delta, Malt is not contemplating ideology so much as the cleaning up of a corrupt municipal council controlled by the NDP. The municipality has been criticized by prosecutors for illicit dealings, including kickbacks from home builders and developers.

"We want to get rid of the negligence, nepotism and bribes," said Malt, whose blog is called the Awaited Hope. "Our country does not belong to the NDP. Egyptians don"t deserve what we are getting now. We"re backward on so many fronts and we"re going downhill."

The village has been an Islamist stronghold for decades. Malt"s father, uncles and other relatives in the Muslim Brotherhood have spent years in prison. Malt spent 45 days in jail last year for belonging to an illegal organization. His son Sohaib, 23, a medical student at Al Azhar University in Cairo, was jailed a year earlier for leading an anti-government protest at the school.

Malt does not keep secret his belief that Islam and politics should be one. The graffiti on a wall in front of his home reads: "The veil is your way to heaven." He blames Washington for siding with the Egyptian regime and says the Muslim Brotherhood is portrayed as fanatical "because the Western media are controlled by Jews."

Malt had a political voice in the 1990s. He was a member of the municipal council, but it was disbanded by the state to counter the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. When he attempted to register his candidacy several weeks ago, Malt said, he was met by plainclothes policemen who detained him for hours and prevented him from filing election papers.

As he spoke in a living room of bare concrete walls and blue and yellow carpets, security forces in other Delta provinces were firing rubber bullets to break up protests by hundreds of his fellow Islamists.

"God willing, the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power one day," Malt said. "If my generation doesn"t make it, the next one will."

[email protected]

Noha El-Hennawy of The Times" Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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