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Muslim Brotherhood Falters As Egypt Outflanks Islamists

May 28, 2009

Wall Street Journal 15 May 09

By Yaroslav Trofimov

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is on the defensive, its struggles reverberating throughout Islamist movements that the secretive organization has spawned world-wide.

Just recently, the Brothers’ political rise seemed unstoppable. Candidates linked with the group won most races they contested in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, gaining a record 20% of seats. Across the border in Gaza, another election the following year propelled the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, into power.

Since then, Egypt’s government jailed key Brotherhood members, crimped its financing and changed the constitution to clip religious parties’ wings. The Brotherhood made missteps, too, alienating many Egyptians with saber rattling and proposed restrictions on women and Christians. These setbacks have undermined the group’s ability to impose its Islamic agenda on this country of 81 million people, the Arab world’s largest.

“When we’re not advancing, we are retreating. And right now we are not spreading, we are not achieving our goals,” the Brotherhood’s second-in-command, Mohamed Habib, said in an interview.

Across the Muslim world, authoritarian governments, Islamist revivalists and liberals often fight for influence. Egypt is a crucial battleground. A decline of the Brotherhood here, with its shrill anti-Israeli rhetoric and intricate ties to Hamas, strengthens President Hosni Mubarak’s policy of engagement with the Jewish state. It could also give him more room to work with President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit Egypt next month, on reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Brotherhood leaders caution against reading too much into the current troubles, saying the 81-year-old group has bounced back from past challenges. Others say the government’s suppression of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s main nonviolent opposition movement — paired with arrests of Mr. Mubarak’s secular foes — can unleash more radical forces.

“If it continues this way, it’s very dangerous and could lead to the return of extremism and terrorism in Egypt,” says Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who ran for president against Mr. Mubarak in 2005 and was later imprisoned on campaign-fraud charges that the U.S. government condemned as politically motivated.

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