Islamists campaigning hard for Egyptian presidency

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has hardened its religious rhetoric to secure the support of the Salafis.

Egyptian women line up to form a human chain on Thursday as they hold posters of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate.
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CAIRO // Recently empowered and showing a huge appetite for power, Islamist groups are looking to this week's presidential vote to crown their sweep of recent parliamentary elections with a win that allows them to push ahead with the Islamisation of Egypt.

But divisions within their ranks, a series of costly missteps and growing disenchantment with their policies could cost them their dream, and they will have only the Muslim Brotherhood to blame.

The odds stacked against the groups, led by the Brotherhood, are clearly playing into the hands of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a crossover Islamist candidate with some appeal among liberals, leftists and even Christians.

Mr Aboul Fotouh and the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi are the two front-runners from the Islamist camp after the disqualification of Salafi Hazem Ismail. Their rivalry is intense - both sides realise that only one of the two will make it to the run-off vote next month.

Sensing danger, the Brotherhood has hardened its religious rhetoric to secure the support of the Salafis, who control about 25 per cent of parliament's seats. Its leaders now speak of the dream of a Muslim caliphate and the implementation of Sharia, if they win the presidency.

It is a gamble the group may have felt forced to take to counter Mr Aboul Fotouh's growing popularity, along with the surprisingly strong showing in opinion polls by the two secular front-runners: Hosni Mubarak's foreign minister of 10 years Amr Moussa and the deposed leader's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

The troubles facing the Brotherhood are mostly of its own making.

The nation's most powerful political group, it has for most of the 84 years since its inception been perceived as an opportunist organisation driven by a lust for power.

In the weeks that followed the removal of President Hosni Mubarak 15 months ago, it said it would contest only about 30 per cent of all seats in parliament and that it had no plans to field its own candidate for president. The Brotherhood, said its leaders, had no wish to rule Egypt, not for now anyway. But the group went back on both promises.

It contested all seats in parliament, winning just under half of them, and fielded a candidate for the land's highest office. The latter decision raised questions about the group's integrity and honesty.

Ironically, the group expelled Mr Aboul Fotouh, a one-time senior leader of the Brotherhood, because of his decision to run for president in violation of its initial position not to field a candidate. Mr Aboul Fotouh's moderate and inclusive platform has added to the Brotherhood's worries, luring young members away from the group.

The Brotherhood responded to Mr Aboul Fotouh's growing support - he secured the backing of a major Salafi organisation and the one-time Jihadist Gamaa Islamiya - with a campaign that questioned his religious credentials and even his faith.

Addressing the Salafis, the Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan wrote a scathing commentary against Mr Aboul Fotouh this month, warning that he was too liberal and noting that his past moderate stances ran against the pillars of the faith. Mr Aboul Fatouh has previously said a Christian has the right to be president and that books about atheism should not be censored.

In another bid to woo Salafis, who follow a branch of Islam that calls for Muslims to comply with the 7th century worldview into which the Prophet Mohammed was born, the Brotherhood has dropped its ambivalence on the question of implementing Sharia.

"We will not accept any alternative to Sharia ... The Quran is our constitution and it will always be so," the Brotherhood's Mr Morsi told supporters at a Cairo University rally.

Last week, Brotherhood members of parliament objected to a World Bank loan given to improve Egypt's battered sewage system because it would involve paying interest, which is banned under Sharia. And Brotherhood leaders say a Mubarak-era law giving women the right to seek divorce should be reviewed.

The Brotherhood is also thought to be behind a letter purportedly written by more than 200 of Mr Aboul Fotouh's campaign workers who quit in protest against his lack of integrity and his political opportunism.

The vilification of Mr Aboul Fotouh and the hardening of the rhetoric may have been inspired in part by the relative weakness of Mr Morsi, who came into the race after the group's first-choice candidate, Khairat El Shater, was disqualified because of a Mubarak-era conviction on political charges.mMr Morsi is lagging in polls, but the Brotherhood's efficient electoral machinery could propel him forward.

With nearly half of the voters undecided, the Brotherhood is expected to put to good use the electoral expertise it has learned over the years and the discipline of its members.

None of the 13 candidates is likely to collect more than 50 per cent of the votes, which is needed to win the race outright this week. So a run-off on June 16 and 17 is likely. A winner will be announced on June 21 and the military generals who took over from Mubarak are due to step down by July 1.