CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – The hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters marching and waving posters touting their candidate for parliament were mostly men. The few women there were segregated at the back of the line, except for one: the candidate herself.
Makarem Eldery, 55, is the only woman running under the banner of Egypt”s largest Islamic fundamentalist movement, which argues that a woman”s place is foremost in the home.
Eldery, who has a doctorate in Arabic literature and teaches at the revered Islamic Al-Azhar University, makes no secret she is not a feminist. She does not believe in Western concepts of equality between men and women, blaming them for rising divorce rates.
"I”m a staunch believer in the woman”s role in the family," said Eldery, who wears a grey khimar, one of the more conservative forms of Islamic veil, draping over her hair, shoulders and most of her arms.
"If the husband objects to his wife running in elections or to work, the interest of the family comes before anything else," she said, sitting in her campaign headquarters in Nasr City, the upper-middle class district of Cairo where she is campaigning for a parliamentary seat.
She noted that she was not neglecting her home: She is a widow and her six children are adults.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned for decades in Egypt but still fields candidates as independents, is making its most assertive push yet in the coming elections, which will be held in three stages starting Wednesday. The movement is fielding about 150 candidates in the race for 454 parliamentary seats, almost double the number it ran in 2000.
In past months, the movement has sought to present itself as a more moderate force for democratic reform, though imposing Islamic law in Egypt remains in its platform. As part of its new image, it has made gestures to women and Christians.
The group asked about 25 women to run, but Eldery was the only one to accept.
"The others have refused due to personal problems that have to do with home, children, breast-feeding or husbands," said Brotherhood deputy leader Mohammed Habib.
Other parties have not done much better in putting women forward. The ruling National Democratic Party has six women candidates, and other parties have similar numbers. There are 11 women in the current parliament.
Eldery”s goal is to boost the Brotherhood, a family legacy for her. Her father was a Brotherhood leader and her husband, Ibrahim Sharaf, was its secretary-general. Sharaf, who died in 2000, spent nine years in jail because of his Brotherhood activities.
The movement fielded one woman candidate in the 2000 elections. Jihan el-Halafawi, the wife of a Brotherhood leader in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, fought a close race but lost in a revote marred by allegations of balloting violations and voter intimidation. Her husband and family were detained in the process.
This year, the government appears to have given the Brotherhood more leniency, freeing several leaders who were arrested several months ago and making no attempt to stop the banned group from campaigning under its own name.
But pressure from security forces has not entirely gone.
Essam Mokhtar, a Brotherhood candidate for another Nasr City seat, was arrested Thursday as he left a mosque on accusations of stealing religious alms to supplement his campaign spending. He was interrogated for hours but released after providing documents proving that no such money was missing.
Eldery and Mokhtar, 45, have complained that nearly all their election banners have been removed or damaged.
Not far from their headquarters, Elham Makhlouf, a veiled engineer in her 50s, acknowledged she had no idea Eldery was running. She said she would vote for the candidate "if she adopts an enlightened version of the Brotherhood."
Eldery faces a tough race against two opponents. The incumbent, Mustafa el-Salab, is a wealthy businessman and member of the ruling NDP. Fawzi el-Sayed, another businessman and a former legislator, is running as an independent.
The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and has been banned since 1954, though it renounced violence in the 1970s. The government had vowed never to let it become a political party.
Eldery insists that does not matter.
"We draw our legitimacy from the people. We don”t need a despotic regime to recognize us," she said. "It”s the regime that lacks legitimacy."