CAIRO,(Reuters) – Chanting "Islam is the Solution", Muslim Brotherhood supporters are taking to the streets in rare public rallies to encourage Egyptians to vote for their banned Islamist movement in parliamentary elections next month.
Hundreds of Brotherhood activists urged Egyptians to vote for their group in a march in a Cairo suburb on Sunday evening, tolerated by the authorities which have frequently cracked down on the officially outlawed movement.
The Brotherhood sidesteps its ban by fielding candidates as independents. It won 17 of 444 elected seats in 2000, making it the chamber”s biggest opposition bloc.
"Who are we? Who are we? We are the Muslim Brotherhood," chanted the 600 men, women and children as they passed through middle- and working-class parts of northern Cairo.
Activists handed out glossy election campaign leaflets to pedestrians and people smoking waterpipes in cafes, who appeared bemused by the campaign march — something not usually seen in parliamentary elections.
"The march is, perhaps, one of the best ways to attract people”s attention," deputy Brotherhood leader Mohamed Habib told Reuters. "The candidates are holding marches in all the constituencies," he said.
The authorities are granting the Muslim Brotherhood unusual leeway in the run up to the elections, releasing instead of arresting the movement”s activists and not impeding campaigning.
The Brotherhood is fielding some 150 candidates this year (double its participation in 2000) encouraged by what it sees as more political freedom and wider political awareness in the Arab world”s biggest country.
North Cairo candidates Essam Mokhtar and Makarim Eldery, who is the Brotherhood”s only woman candidate, met voters in cafes and shops during Thursday”s march and handed out leaflets outlining the movement”s goals.
They include reforms to allow more political freedom, ridding the country of what they call foreign influence and establishing sound religious beliefs among individuals.
Egypt has been ruled since 1981 by President Hosni Mubarak, whose National Democratic Party holds more than 85 percent of the seats in parliament.
Mohammed Hassan, a 20-year-old student, said he was impressed by the march as it passed by the cafe where he and his friends were drinking tea. "They want the good of the country, not to mess it up," he said.
"I could vote for the Brotherhood. Why? Because I cannot vote for the ruling party. They haven”t done anything," university lecturer Mohamed Shinawy said.
"If real Islam is applied, it is the solution. Not the Islam of bombs, but Islam which functions," he said.
But many Christians, who make up five to 10 percent of Egypt”s 72 million, fear their rights would be jeopardised by greater Islamist influence.
One Christian, who declined to be named, said he was alarmed when the march passed by. "If they reached power we would not stay in the country," he said.
The government justifies its ban on the Brotherhood on the grounds the constitution bans parties based on religion. The Brotherhood says Christians should enjoy all the rights of citizenship except the right to be president.
Christians have been alarmed in the last two weeks by Muslim protests against a play staged in a church in Alexandria. Three demonstrators died on Friday in a protest over the play which the protesters said insulted Islam. Clerics denied it did.
Conscious of Christian concerns, the Brotherhood marchers underlined Islam”s historical pledge to protect Christians and Jews, who are known as dhimma in Arabic.
"We make the pledge and guard the dhimma, to the Copts, children of the nation," they chanted.