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Egyptian Islamists hamstrung by Mubarak's dominance

CAIRO, Egypt—Many Egyptians' high hopes for the Muslim Brotherhood—the conservative Islamists they elected to parliament last winter—have been disappointed.

The outspoken group has used its newfound presence in parliament to challenge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's perpetual emergency law, level brutality complaints against security forces, and criticize limits placed on judges. The legislators also have sharply criticized the government's response to both the bird flu crisis and a deadly ferry disaster on the Red Sea.

But the small contingent of Brotherhood-aligned legislators, vastly outnumbered by the ruling National Democratic Party, has yet to pass a single legislative initiative. That has left many Egyptians to conclude that their election was just window-dressing to appease Islamists and ease pressure from the Bush administration, which had been pressing Mubarak for greater democracy.

"They let me down," said Mustafa Hussein, 20, a university student who voted for Brotherhood candidates. "I don't like their performance. There was no change—only slogans."

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East's oldest Islamist movement and Egypt's chief opposition force, is officially banned here because Egypt does not allow religion-based political parties.

But its members were allowed to campaign as independents, and voters turned out in droves last fall to support the candidates, despite government forces blocking polling stations in some areas. The Islamist bloc won an unprecedented 88 spots, or about 20 percent of the 444-seat legislature.

But that small number is not enough, even when joined by other independents and opposition groups, to counter Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

"They are paralyzed because of the governmental apparatus—they are not paralyzed because they are inactive," said Hassan Nafaa, chairman of the political science department at Cairo University.

Brotherhood lawmakers have attempted to block Mubarak's initiatives on several fronts. They challenged the government's annual report on its activities, but could not block it. They demanded that the interior minister be ordered to testify about abuse allegations against the state security forces, but the best they good get was an offer for a session with the environmental minister.

"This is normal," said Abdel Ahad Gamaleldin, the parliament's majority leader, from the ruling party. "The Brotherhood is a minority and every minority in the world faces the same challenges. Discussion is for all, but the decision rests with the majority."

Analysts say, however, that Mubarak stepped up efforts to keep the Brotherhood in check after the militant Islamist group Hamas won Palestinian elections in January. Mubarak delayed municipal elections that had been scheduled for this spring, and dozens of Brotherhood members or associates were rounded up in recent weeks on what government critics say were flimsy or baseless charges. Brotherhood members also say that state security forces have threatened the owners of buildings where the group had scheduled meetings with constituents. On some occasions they've had to move meetings.

"The government found itself in an unenviable dilemma of creating real democratic reform—which would not work in its favor in the end—or stopping the process altogether," said Abdul Moneim Abul Fotouh, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "If there were to be real political reform, the ruling party would not come out on top, and the real beneficiaries would be the opposition, which means the Muslim Brotherhood."

As the Brotherhood struggles against the government's political monopoly, parliamentary sessions have grown more rancorous. At a meeting last month, a legislator rose to address the bird flu epidemic on behalf of what he called the "Muslim Brotherhood bloc." The speaker of parliament, a member of Mubarak's party, quickly shushed him, saying there was no such thing. The hall erupted in guffaws and rumblings, according to a local newspaper's account of the incident.

Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood said they were frustrated—but not disheartened—by the government's tenacious grasp on power. Mohamed Saad el Katatini, head of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc, said Islamists would take their fight outside the halls of the legislature with an ambitious public awareness campaign to peak in May, when lawmakers will discuss the renewal of Egypt's emergency laws, which have been in effect since 1981.

Until then, el Katatini said, the group has no choice but to take comfort in its small victories. For example, he said, the parliament this month voted to renew a law that gives Mubarak the sole authority to make weapons deals. The issue comes up every three years and typically sails through after about a half-hour of debate.

"This time, it took more than four hours," el Katatini said. "At least now the ruling party actually has to stay in the room and listen to its opponents."

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(El Naggar is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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