- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

CAIRO — Egypt’s largest Islamic opposition group is asserting itself as the main challenger to President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime, overshadowing secular reform groups a year after winning nearly one-fifth of the seats in parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which officials banned in 1954, is increasing its influence in powerful trade unions and using its new weight in parliament to issue challenges to Mr. Mubarak’s administration. The group, which still has limited power, also is working behind the scenes to rebuild its ranks: waiting, perhaps, to make bigger public moves.

The renewed vigor of the nearly 80-year-old group dates to parliamentary elections last year. Brotherhood candidates, who ran as independents, won an unprecedented 88 seats in the 454-member parliament.

In recent weeks, the Brotherhood fought a fierce battle to win a significant chunk of seats in powerful trade unions, which include millions of workers in the enormous state-run industries, plus workers in the huge government bureaucracy.

In another sign of its growing influence, the Brotherhood last month forced parliament to debate a vote of no confidence in Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, a longtime Mubarak confidant, after the minister said that wearing the hijab, or full Muslim head scarf, was a “step backward” for Egyptian women.

The minister remains in office, but secular intellectuals immediately accused the group of using an off-the-cuff remark to bolster its political agenda.

“They are trying to Islamize the society from below to reshape it the way they want,” said Nabil Abdel Fatah, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.

Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, a senior Brotherhood leader, said the political gains have been made despite frequent government crackdowns such as the arrests of its members and a general slowing in the pace of democratic reform.

To win support from workers, the Brotherhood reversed its traditional support of free-market policies to come out strongly in support of the state sector. That won it support against Mubarak-allied candidates because the government wants to move toward privatization and other economic reforms.

The Brotherhood already controls some powerful unions, such as the lawyers and the doctors syndicates, but its power remains limited. When it tried to field candidates in recent elections for student unions, social clubs and businessmen groups, the authorities kept its candidates away from the ballot.

The Brotherhood appears to be moving much more slowly, if at all, to expand its influence into more-sensitive parts of Egypt’s society, such as the army and security forces. Both are considered backbones of Mr. Mubarak’s regime and key to ensuring stability. Politics are banned in the armed forces.

Meanwhile, speculation remains rife that Mr. Mubarak, 78, is preparing to clear the way for his ambitious son, Gamal, 42, to succeed him after his fifth term ends in 2011 — despite Mr. Mubarak’s denials.

The speculation has led many to think that the Brotherhood is just biding its time until the period of uncertainty during any such transfer of power.

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