Night settles over Egypt, and the women of Kafr Shibin, a small town in the Nile River Delta, are attending the election rally of a local candidate running for a women's seat in Egypt's parliament. As the women take their seats, candidate Dr. Hoda Ghania fumbles with a tiny microphone taken from a battered karaoke set. Finally, with the speaker's special-effects option locked on "stadium reverb," a setting that belies the clandestine nature of the meeting, Ghania launches into her stump speech. "The situation in the country is bad," she warns. "Is it justice for our youth to graduate and find no job? For teachers to make 110 [Egyptian] pounds ($22) a month?" It's a familiar diagnosis for an audience well versed in Egypt's many problems. But for these women, each draped in the voluminous headscarf worn by those who are extremely conservative, Ghania's prescriptions are nothing short of revolutionary. "The change," she says, "should come through us, because God does not change anything except through us."
A dermatologist, Ghania, 42, promises to increase military funding so the army can tackle the land mines that have robbed farmers of their fields. She wants education reform, higher teacher salaries, better health care and literacy programs. She wants maternity leave for working mothers and stresses that Christians and Muslims should work together to fix the country. The audience nods vigorously. Some of the younger girls jump up to take photos on their mobile phones.
If Ghania were campaigning for one of Egypt's mainstream secular parties, her progressive platform would hardly merit notice. But she is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but widely popular group that Egypt's ruling party insists is too religious and too conservative to be allowed to exist as a fully legal party in a fledgling democratic system. For that reason, Ghania, whose father is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, must run as an independent.
When Egyptians go to the polls Nov. 28, they won't find the country's largest opposition group on the ballot. All of the Brotherhood's candidates will, like Ghania, be standing as "independents," a transparent subterfuge that allowed the group to win one-fifth of parliamentary seats five years ago. To make things harder for the Brotherhood this time around, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is largely perceived as corrupt and nepotistic, has rolled back some of the reforms that had made the 2005 election the most unhindered of President Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule. The independent judiciary no longer has oversight of the election, and a recent government crackdown on several media outlets has been interpreted as an attempt to stem criticism of the ruling party.
With presidential elections slated for next year, there is a great deal at stake. Mubarak, 82, is expected to run for a sixth term in office. Challengers must be the head of an officially recognized political party or have the approval of 250 members of parliament and municipal councils. The government justifies the ban on the Brotherhood by arguing that religion has no role in Egyptian politics. Increasingly, however, Egyptians are starting to wonder if the Brotherhood's popularity is less a threat to Egyptian society than it is to the ruling party's grip on power. "They are good guys, not terrorists," says travel agent Ahmed Barakat. "But the government won't let them campaign, not even in student elections, [because] they will win."
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown into a worldwide movement that promotes Islam through charity work, grass-roots activism and electoral politics. Though formally banned in Egypt in 1954 following decades of tension with the government, the group has been tolerated to varying degrees over the years by Egyptian regimes that have found it both threatening and useful. In the 1970s, the group formally renounced violence, though its Islamist teachings have inspired violent groups like Hamas. Both Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri were influenced by the movement's embrace of political Islam. Since the 1980s, it has become the most active opposition force in Egyptian politics.
The regime has responded to the group's rising popularity with periodic crackdowns: thousands of members have been detained over the past decade, usually on charges of belonging to a banned organization, and many Brotherhood-linked charities and businesses have been shut down. This has hardly stemmed its popularity. Rather, perseverance through imprisonment is a source of pride for its members.
The Brotherhood's dogged survival presents the question: What would happen if it were allowed to compete in a free democracy? Its opponents have no doubt about its nature. General Fouad Allam, a former chief of Egypt's internal security services who spent decades monitoring the Brotherhood, says it is similar in scope to the international communist movement but "more organized and more engaged." He hints at international funding of the group and raises the specter of an Islamist takeover of a key U.S. ally. "Egypt would regress 100 years if the Brotherhood came to power," he says, describing a scenario in which women could be forced indoors and Egypt's current peace treaty with Israel "would change 100%."