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Border crisis bolsters Islamists

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and secular political groups rally for Gazans -- and against Mubarak.

January 29, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Egypt's main Islamist party and other opposition groups are strengthening their appeal by using images of desperate Palestinians streaming out of the Gaza Strip to provoke wider protests against President Hosni Mubarak's 26-year-old government.

Demonstrations in Cairo and throughout the country by the Muslim Brotherhood and other political groups ostensibly have been staged to declare Egyptian solidarity with the residents of Gaza. But they are also aimed at weakening Mubarak, whom the groups accuse of oppression and criticize for economic shortcomings and close ties to Washington.

It is political theater punctuated with dangerous rhetoric. Mubarak's vast intelligence and security forces are attempting to prevent pro-Palestinian protests from erupting into sustained nationwide anti-government rallies. But the Muslim Brotherhood and Kifaya, Arabic for "Enough," an umbrella opposition group of leftists and nationalists, are determined to make just that happen. The Muslim Brotherhood has sponsored 80 demonstrations since Wednesday, when hundreds of thousands of Gazans began pouring into Egypt through a breached border wall.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which favors a government guided by Islamic law, known as Sharia, has a platform of nonviolence but has been accused over the years of bombings and other militant acts.. Despite the arrests of hundreds of its members, the group enjoys extensive support among the poor and middle class and poses the nation's most significant political threat to Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.

The Palestinian cause is the crystallizing passion in the Arab world, but the Gaza border crisis has brought new urgency to a public relations battle between Islamists and secular governments, especially in Egypt. It has also demonstrated that Hamas, the militant Islamist party that controls Gaza and is ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, remains a major factor in the future Palestinian equation, contrary to the wishes of the U.S., Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

At the Rafah border crossing Monday, Hamas cooperated for the first time with an Egyptian effort to reassert control over the frontier. Egyptian guards and Hamas forces coordinated security and used concrete and barbed wire to close at least two gaps in the barrier opened by explosions. At least four gaps remained open, including two for cars.

Thousands of Palestinians went back and forth. Traffic, thinned by rain Sunday, was heavier Monday but down from last week's massive levels. Shoppers, however, found little to buy in the Egyptian Sinai, where prices began rising and the government limited the availability of goods.

While Egyptian authorities debated how to further shrink the number of Palestinians in Sinai, they also concentrated on domestic dissent. Police in recent days have broken up a number of protests and arrested scores of Muslim Brotherhood members and Kifaya activists.

Opposition groups in Egypt have historically been disparate, with various religious and secular agendas and lacking a unifying spirit other than disdain for Mubarak's government, which receives nearly $2 billion a year in U.S. aid and upholds an unpopular peace treaty with Israel.

The current political maneuverings between the government and opposition come as this nation of 73 million people is enduring persistent inflation, shrinking government subsidies and budget deficits.

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whose members ran as independents and won about 20% of the seats in Parliament in 2005, said its chief aim is to support Palestinians and condemn U.S. and Israeli policies. But the organization acknowledged that the protests had grown wider in scope. Banners in a Cairo demonstration of 2,000 protesters last week included slogans sympathetic toward Palestinians and vitriolic against Egypt, such as "A Country Without Justice."

"The regime dealt brutally with demonstrators because it is concerned about domestic stability," said Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. "The regime knows that there is public outrage for other reasons including inflation, unemployment and other accumulated problems. It fears that things will explode."

Egyptians are "terribly depressed by the domestic situation and want to express themselves by any means," said George Ishaq, a Kifaya leader. "They seized [the Gaza border dispute] as a chance to express their views."

Mohammed Sayed Said, deputy head of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said support for the Palestinians is giving the Muslim Brotherhood "a great deal of legitimacy."

"They're anti-Israeli and anti-American. They see themselves as the most vehement resistors, and this is a big payoff for them. They have been very clear in focusing on the Palestinian issue," he said.

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