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Another phenomenal insight to the intertwining of Egyptian politics and religion that is rarely reported on with accuracy.

CAIRO — Ali Abdel Fattah, spokesman for the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood, sat at a laminate table in his office in South Cairo, answering phone calls, chattering in Arabic at aides in dark suits and discussing plans for Egypt under democratic rule.

In the scramble for power among groups of various political identity after last week's ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood — an Islamist group that has held as many as 20% of the seats in Egypt's parliament in recent years — is vowing to increase its influence on daily life in Egypt.

The Brotherhood would seek "the preservation of honor" by stoning adulterers, punishing gays, requiring Muslim women to cover their heads and shoulders in public and killing Muslims who leave their faith, said Abdel Fattah, whose forehead bore the calluses of those who prostrate themselves five times a day in prayer.

As he spoke late Saturday, the "thump thump" of a cleaver could be heard just outside the unadorned office. A man was hacking up a calf on a wood stump, arranging the meat on a plastic sheet on the patio floor. A bright puddle of blood ran into the street as the animal was slaughtered for a feast celebrating the Brotherhood's hopes for the future.

"We basically want a government that will take on the demands of the people that were clear in the revolution of Tahrir Square," Abdel Fattah said. "Sharia law does not differ from the demands of the people."

Leaders of political parties that dominated the protest movement disagree.

Egyptian protesters celebrate under fireworks at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday after Hosni Mubarak resigned as president.

In the upper-class neighborhood of Zamalek, members of Egypt's liberal opposition gathered Saturday night at the penthouse apartment of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour.

Nour talked as his guests sat on gilded armchairs, sipped sparkling fruit juices and dined on baked shrimp, fish and stuffed crab under a clear night sky beside the roof-top swimming pool. People talked about a new dawn for Egypt and what it took to get to this point.

Egyptians want a government that adheres to the universal declaration of human rights agreed to by the United Nations, said Wael Nawara, secretary general of Nour's liberal party, Al Ghad.

"Egyptians are very mellow," Nawara said, gesturing to a crowd listening to blaring music outside Al Ghad's downtown office, where a man danced with a gyrating woman wearing a hijab, surrounded by clapping onlookers. "The Muslim Brotherhood don't like music or dancing."

Egyptians of all political persuasions celebrated the departure of Mubarak, 82, who was forced out of the presidential palace Friday by the military and was staying at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, according to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Liberals and Islamists have announced that they intend to seek power through elections that, under Mubarak, had been rigged for years.

Parties that largely were banned by Mubarak, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are looking forward to running candidates openly. Politicians such as Nour, who spent years in jail for challenging Mubarak's repressive regime, are wooing supporters.

Many in the West are hopeful that a democratic Egypt, the most populous nation in the Middle East with a population of about 82 million, will herald a new age in a troubled region where Arab despots, monarchs and sheiks have presided over restive populations from which militancy and terrorism have been exported for years.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has argued that the United States should welcome the upheaval as a chance for the Arab world to modernize and allow moderate forces to gain the upper hand. Others say democracy in Egypt could help radicals gain power.

"The shorter the time before new elections, the better the chance for the already well-organized Brotherhood to maximize its gains," said Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's Near East & South Asia Intelligence Office.
Laying the groundwork for elections

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 as a strict Islamic alternative to Western influences. It spawned a radical cell that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. It inspired al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian and former member of the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood's Abdel Fattah says the group wants Egypt's army to quickly pave the way for civilian rule, as well as changes to the constitution that would lay the groundwork for elections soon.

On Sunday the Brotherhood got half of what it wanted. Egypt's Armed Forces Supreme Council, which is ruling the nation for now, announced that it had dissolved Mubarak's handpicked parliament and suspended the constitution, which had been packed with provisions to prevent free elections and opposition parties.

The liberal parties and youth groups that kept the protests going for 20 days have a platform, and some of their goals are similar to those that the Brotherhood supports. For example, both want to crack down on corruption and a culture of bribery that shopkeepers, businesses and ordinary Egyptians say has made daily life here difficult.

Nawara says sweeping out the corrupt members of the regime is a first step toward encouraging foreign investment in Egypt that will lead to jobs, but the Brotherhood wants investment strategies to abide by Islamic law.

Nawara says Egypt's military — which has long had close ties to the U.S. military — should remain in charge of Egypt until a civilian government is running smoothly. The liberal parties say they also want the United States — which sends about $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt each year — to use its influence to ensure Egyptian officers continue reforms.

Mona Makram-Ebeid, a Coptic Christian and former member of the Egyptian parliament, plans to push for a greatly expanded student exchange program with the West so young Egyptians can learn how to development the economy.

A sharia-based state would be "totally refused" if put to a referendum in Egypt, she predicted, surrounded in her office by wooden furnishings and framed oil paintings that hark to the early 20th century, when Cairo was home to Jewish and Christian refugees from Europe.

The Brotherhood is "a cause for concern, but not a cause for fearful reaction," Makram-Ebeid said. Its strength, he said, is a result of Mubarak's repression of liberals, who were not allowed to organize while the Brotherhood was able to do so in mosques and through its teachers and charities.

"You counter (the Brotherhood) by allowing new parties to form without any restriction," Makram-Ebeid said. "They can mobilize the street. But the youth can mobilize more."
How strong is the Brotherhood?

Estimates vary on the political support the Brotherhood has in Egypt.

The movement gained 20% of seats in the parliament in 2005 when Mubarak, under pressure from the Bush administration on human rights issues, allowed direct elections for the first time. Wael Nawara of Al Ghad says the Brotherhood would gain 15% of the seats in an election today. Mohamed Zarea, a lawyer and human rights worker who deals with members of the Brotherhood, says they would get 50%.

Some conservative Muslims consider themselves more moderate and would not go along with an extremist program.

Mohamed Hossam Eldin Abdel Wahid, 56, who keeps a large red tinted beard and a floor-length ochre robe, considers himself a conservative Muslim. He says he memorized the Quran during a 20-year detention under Mubarak's emergency laws. Selling scented oils to men outside a mosque in Giza, he said "attacks based on religion are wrong."

"A Muslim who does not practice regulations of Islam, who's an extremist, is a sinful Muslim," he said.

Makram-Ebeid estimates the Brotherhood would gain "only" 30% of parliament seats in elections involving 22 opposition parties she counts as vying for power. However, a party could do a lot with such a percentage of the parliament's seats.

Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group and enemy of Israel, last month toppled the government of the majority pro-Western parties in Lebanon and installed its own candidate as prime minister. Hezbollah did this despite having just 57 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament.

Most agree that Egypt's policy toward Israel will change no matter who gains power. For years, Mubarak clamped down on arms to Hamas and opposed Hezbollah.

The Brotherhood wants to put Egypt's peace treaty with Israel up to a referendum, Abdel Fattah said. And if the government decides to open border crossings between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, "we will support Hamas like others will," he said, referring to the U.S.-designated terror group that rules Gaza. Even liberals say they will pay more attention to the Palestinians than Mubarak did.

Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Forum, says if radical Islamists come to power, they will foment a revolution along the lines of Iran's in 1979. In Iran, the ruling Islamists' belief in God's sovereignty trumps political participation by the masses. The Islamist movement is "inherently anti-democratic," because leaders reject democratic laws that run counter to Islamic texts — but Islamists are willing to use elections to gain power, Pipes said.

The movement may already be the best-organized opposition group because of a network of charities, hospitals and aid programs for the poor.

The group's grass-roots network is a source of power that liberals may have a hard time countering, especially if not given enough time to organize. Egypt's old Wafd and newer liberal and reform parties "may have a tough slog" reaching out, especially to Egypt's large lower class, White said.

Under Mubarak, Nawara said, the Brotherhood was cited as a villain to scare the international community into believing that chaos would reign if Mubarak were deposed.

The revolution showed that Egyptians knew it was a lie, he said. But he doesn't think the people want the Brotherhood.

"If the Muslim Brotherhood takes power and starts to impose their Mickey Mouse ideas," he said, "the people will go back to the street."
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