What's So Scary About Egypt's Islamists?

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Lynsey Addario / VII Network for TIME

Egyptians will go to the polls on Nov. 28 to vote for positions in Parliament. In the last election, members of the Islamist political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, running as independents, won one-fifth of the seats.

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The Brotherhood rejects such claims as politically motivated fearmongering, while Egypt's secular opposition argues that the government stokes fear of the Brotherhood to quash real democratic change. "This is the myth that Mubarak has been selling for 30 years," says Ibrahim Issa, the former editor of the influential newspaper al-Dustour, who was recently dismissed because, he says, of his overt criticism of the regime. (The newspaper's owners say the dismissal was due to an internal dispute.) "He is using the Muslim Brotherhood as a scarecrow. Mubarak says, 'It's either me or the jihadists.' [It's] his only guarantee for staying in power."

Mubarak isn't alone in making a bogeyman of the Brotherhood: governments across the Arab world regard it with varying degrees of suspicion. In Syria, for instance, the group has clashed with the secular Baathist regime and now operates almost entirely underground. Western governments aren't always sure how to view it. Since the Brotherhood gave up violence 40 years ago, says Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "there are no grounds for calling them a terrorist organization. But they do strongly support Hamas financially and politically."

Just how scared should we be of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? In numerical terms, it doesn't present much of a threat. Membership is in the low hundreds of thousands, and in a fair election, the Islamists would not be expected to win — in 2005, only 3% of the population voted for the Brotherhood. And some of those votes were in protest of an inept regime rather than wholehearted endorsements of the Islamist cause. "Many of the people who vote for the Muslim Brothers are doing it in order to vote against the National Democratic Party," says Sayed al-Badawi, the head of the Wafd, Egypt's oldest legal opposition party.

Since the Brotherhood's bloc in parliament has achieved little over the past five years, it may now receive some of the popular skepticism previously reserved for the official parties. Legal recognition could diminish the Brothers' appeal, says human-rights activist Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: "Once you allow them into the political race, they become politicians, and they are judged as politicians." Legal status would also undermine the Brotherhood's claim to victimhood.

Members of the Brotherhood point out that this year, as in 2005, they are contesting less than a third of the parliamentary seats — not nearly enough to capture the majority needed to amend the constitution. Members say their immediate goals are grass-roots organization and political participation, not regime change. "We are not out to win and form a government," says Brotherhood member and parliamentarian Mohsen Radi. "Participation, not victory, is our new slogan."

Still, despite its limited effectiveness, the Brotherhood has appeal. Egypt has more than 20 legal opposition parties, but they're widely viewed as regime puppets, timid political bodies that exist more on paper than on the Egyptian streets. Such a limited choice serves the regime well — the few parties that manage to upset the balance are quickly quashed. Ayman Nour, head of the liberal Ghad Party, for example, challenged Mubarak in the first multicandidate presidential race, in 2005. He clinched second place with 7% of the vote — and was then jailed on fraud charges his supporters say were trumped up. Released in 2009, he has returned to the fray. "Our role is to show that there is a third option for the Egyptian voter. It doesn't always have to be a dictatorship or an Islamist regime," explains Shadi Taha, his campaign manager. "We believe that the majority of Egyptians [are] looking for that other option."

But these parties have a lot of catching up to do before they can challenge the Brotherhood. The Islamists have been building a grass-roots organization for decades, using university campuses, charities and close-knit family networks for recruitment. The Brotherhood's charity operations have been especially effective in earning admiration. After the 1992 Cairo earthquake, the group distributed tents and aid materials to 2,000 people who lost their homes and livelihoods. Many Brotherhood members are doctors and pharmacists who help fill the health care void left by Egypt's woefully ill-equipped government hospitals. The Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood-linked charity, operates 29 hospitals throughout the country, providing inexpensive but comprehensive services for poor Egyptians. In one such hospital in Cairo, visitors pay about $2 for a checkup. The facilities are sparse, but doctors say the practice is clean and the staff doesn't solicit bribes, unlike in the government hospitals.

It's a powerful strategy for winning loyalty, one other political groups are trying to copy. After business mogul al-Sayyid al-Badawi took over the liberal Wafd Party in May, part of his efforts to revive it revolved around a personally funded charity to provide medical services and community-development projects in the name of the Wafd. "We put a large amount of money towards human services, medical services and to share with people during disasters," he says. "So we have come to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood using the same methods that they do."

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