SHOBRA EL KHEIMA, Egypt — Shadi Taha, clean-shaven, in a black suit and spit-shined shoes, drew curious stares one recent evening as he sat among local men at a rundown cafe in this industrial Cairo suburb.
Taha was immersed in notes for a speech he was to give that night at a rally for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, the best-organized group running in parliamentary elections that begin in two weeks.
Striking the right tone was crucial for Taha because, unlike the Brotherhood's candidates, who've long provided mobile clinics and after-school tutoring programs to this hardscrabble district, he's an unknown and, more importantly, not an Islamist like his running mates.
Taha belongs to the liberal Ghad Party, whose founder, Ayman Nour, became a cause celebre when he was imprisoned after running against the now-deposed Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential race. The United States was, for a time, a vocal supporter of Nour's quest for democratic reforms in the Arab world's most populous nation.
With Mubarak gone and the Islamists ascending, however, Ghad and a handful of other liberal and centrist parties have joined the Brotherhood-led ticket in a mutually beneficial alliance that few expect to last much longer than election season.
Put simply, the liberals need votes, and the Brotherhood needs non-Islamist running mates to prove to skeptics that a powerful, once-underground group is prepared to work closely with others in the new Egypt.
With drastically different visions for Egypt's future, the uneasy partners focus on common issues, chiefly the fight to keep Mubarak-era politicians from regrouping and stealing back the government. Although they're the minority in the alliance, Taha said, he and other liberals are trying to make their voices heard over the Freedom and Justice Party's deafening chants of "Islam is the solution."
"We're all new at this. I'm a liberal candidate and I go sit down with the Freedom and Justice Party and speak on behalf of liberalism. Sometimes I tell them, 'Hey, the words freedom and justice are basically the definition of liberalism'," Taha said with a laugh.
The Brotherhood's many detractors say the political overtures to non-Islamists are merely window dressing for the group's real goal to rule Egypt by Islamic law, a fear shared by the United States, which for decades has counted Egypt among its closest allies in the Middle East. Egypt is the longtime recipient of an annual $1.2 billion U.S. aid package, which some Republican members of Congress are pushing to cut unless the next Egyptian government upholds a peace treaty with Israel and excludes the Muslim Brotherhood.
Aware that Western powers and Egyptian rivals are scrutinizing their ambitions, the Brotherhood's politicians seem eager to show that their much-noted organizational skills are backed by a political maturity that also sets them apart from their opponents.
Sprinkling non-Islamists throughout their parliamentary tickets is just one part of the Brotherhood's strategy to prove to the Egyptian electorate that its members aren't "extremists and arm-choppers," said Haitham Abdel Moneim, the Freedom and Justice Party's candidate supervisor for the Qaloubiya province, which includes this gritty community.
"Some members of Islamist movements did extremist stuff, but that was not the majority," Abdel Moneim said. "Now we're in direct contact with the people, so they'll know the truth about us."
Each Freedom and Justice candidate takes leadership-preparation courses on subjects such as parliamentary protocol, media relations and crisis management, party leaders said. The party's campaign posters are plastered like wallpaper on the dingy walls of Egypt's slums. By day, the candidates press hands with poor voters at food giveaways and, by night, they appear on popular talk shows to debate Islam's compatibility with democracy.
The Freedom and Justice Party has bucked stereotypes about Islamists sidelining women by putting female candidates among the top five slots on electoral tickets, far higher than most of their less conservative rivals.
In the rural province of Assiut, a woman from a prominent Brotherhood family is No. 1 on her district's ticket, all but ensuring that she'll be in the next parliament. In Shobra al Kheima, one of the largest and most polluted cities in Egypt, a woman, Dr. Huda Ghaniya, is No. 3.
"We have high hopes in the coming parliament, the first parliament to come through fair and transparent elections," Ghaniya told a cheering crowd at the rally later that night. "It will host men and women who appreciate and believe in this country, people who will work for its future."
The Freedom and Justice Party's closest rivals, analysts say, are Mubarak-era politicians who've coalesced into about seven parties that are preaching "stability" and "reform," which sounds enticing to the millions of Egyptians who've suffered from the economic decline and rise in crime that have followed the uprising.
Revolutionaries refer to the Mubarak holdovers as "felool," the Arabic word for "remnants." The revolutionaries are trying to persuade voters that they're trying to restore an authoritarian state run by a powerful business elite.
On their own, however, liberal and leftist parties that sprang up from the uprising barely register on the campaign trail.
"Those Islamists, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, do not have an ideology of Islam. They're neoliberals who want to have business, create jobs, make money, open up this country for investment, and they're using Islam to get there," said Tarek Shalaby, a revolutionary activist with nearly 20,000 followers on Twitter and a proponent of boycotting the elections.
"Islam for them is not an ideology, it's a method, and I think what they're doing is very low and weak," Shalaby said. "And the Ghad Party is similar, cooperating on this job."
A week before sharing the dais with his bearded running mates in Shobra el Kheima, Taha and other Ghad Party candidates had staged a rally outside their own party's headquarters in the heart of downtown Cairo. Only a few dozen supporters showed up. Nour, the party's founder and star politician, was a no-show.
A radically different scene unfolded at the campaign stop in Shobra al Kheima.
The Freedom and Justice Party had ordered 4,000 chairs, which volunteers arranged in two long columns, one side for men and the other for women. By the time the rally began, with a prayer and the national anthem, every seat was filled, with hundreds more standing outside the cordon to listen.
One seat on the dais was reserved for Nour, by far the most famous, if not the most popular, speaker. Nour received a warm response when he addressed the crowd to stump for Taha as well as the Brotherhood co-candidates.
Watching Nour say the Islamic greeting "assalamu alaikum" — peace be upon you — from a podium draped in a Freedom and Justice Party flag was a sight few Egyptians could've imagined only months ago.
"I came here to support this candidacy list because I know and respect every member of it," Nour told the crowd. "I know their history and trust each one of them."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011