CAIRO, Egypt, AP -After sunset, young campaign workers fan out in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Islam is the solution" and playing audio tapes on which singers declare, "The world is thirsty for Islam."
Banned in Egypt for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood is making its most overt drive yet for political influence in this month”s parliamentary elections, taking advantage of the government”s promises of greater democracy.
Only a few weeks ago, thousands of Brotherhood members and leaders were in jail after the latest police crackdown on the organization. But most have been freed ahead of the Nov. 9 vote — a sign of the government”s willingness to give some breathing room to a group it has long tried to keep out of politics.
The Brotherhood is fielding some 130 candidates in the races across Egypt for parliament”s 454 seats. Its leaders hope to win up to 70 seats, though election observers believe up to 30 is more realistic.
Either way, it would be a significant increase over its current 15 lawmakers.
Posters for Brotherhood candidates have been plastered on walls around the capital. In the past, the party”s candidates have thinly disguised their allegiance by identifying themselves as members of the "Islamic trend," but their posters now openly proclaim "al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun" — "The Muslim Brotherhood."
Hazem Abu Ismail, a wealthy lawyer-businessman, is the Brotherhood”s hopeful in the Cairo neighborhood of Dokki, where thousands of supporters worked the streets earlier this week, handing out leaflets.
"A vote for us is a vote for Islam," Abu Ismail told passers-by. Residents stepped out of shops and cafes to watch the campaigners. A few policemen stood at a distance without intervening, even as Abu Ismail denounced the government.
Some in the neighborhood expressed resentment for the Brotherhood”s traditional rallying call, "Islam is the solution," which appears on campaign literature.
"This is a vague and arrogant slogan," said Atef Shahin, a university lecturer. "We want a down-to-earth platform that offers concrete solutions for our political and economic ailments. The Brotherhood”s concerns are not our concerns."
But the Brotherhood campaign has made the question of religion and the state a prominent part of the election, threatening to deepen the secular-religious divide in the country. The election follows sectarian clashes in Alexandria between Muslims and Christians last month that left four people dead.
A record number of more than 4,200 candidates will participate in the polls being held in three stages across Egypt over the next month. The elections, and the next polls in 2010, are seen as crucial contests for determining whether Egyptian opposition groups will be eligible for the 2011 presidential vote.
The government of President Hosni Mubarak, who was re-elected to another six-year term in September, has long denied the Brotherhood legal status as a party, saying it won”t permit parties with a religious platform.
Now Mubarak is promising greater democratic reform in the country he has ruled with autocratic power for 24 years, amid calls from Washington to allow all groups to participate in elections. But while allowing Brotherhood candidates to run as independents, the government maintains its opposition to the group.
Mubarak”s ruling National Democratic Party has unveiled an election campaign theme and manifesto that promises more political and economic reforms and warns against mixing religion with politics.
At an election rally in downtown Cairo last week, NDP secretary general Safwat el-Sherif told supporters that his party rejects attempts to use religion for political purposes. Al-Ahram, the leading government newspaper, scoffed at the Muslim Brotherhood for injecting Islam into the campaign.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has never put forward a political program that deals with today”s problems or tomorrow”s aspirations," the paper said in an editorial. "Instead, it resorts to emotional slogans about heaven to deal with the problems of reality. When will the Brotherhood … catch up with the spirit of our time?"
But the Brotherhood has been campaigning on more than just religious rhetoric.
The world”s largest and most influential Islamic movement is also one of the richest, and its candidates use a massive network of social services — including clinics, schools and charities — to lure voters.
The group renounced violence in the 1970s and says it seeks to create an Islamic state through peaceful means.
Because the group is outlawed, Brotherhood members may not run in elections but the organization can endorse candidates. Their successes in the streets have lured others to adopt a more Islamic stance. Many NDP candidates have splashed mottos such as "God is the solution" and "The Quran is the solution" on campaign posters.
And government lenience to the Brotherhood campaign is fueling rumors that the next parliament — which like the current one is expected to be overwhelmingly dominated by Mubarak”s party — may make a deal for legalizing the movement.
"The Brothers have achieved an outstanding presence in the political arena and have supporters who have succeeded in convincing large sectors of the population with their ideas," Kamal el-Shazly, the minister of state for Parliamentary Affairs and a key NDP leader, was quoted as saying during his campaign.