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Muslim Brotherhood's rhetoric reveals intent in Egypt

Egyptians look on during an Egyptian presidential campaign event for Mohammed Morsy. Mohammed Morsy is the Freedom and Justice Party candidate. The Freedom and Justice Party is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Photo by Ted Nieters

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Sunday, May 20, 2012, 12:26 a.m.

CAIRO -- Any pretense of moderation has disappeared at rallies for Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsy.

In the Nile delta industrial town of Mahallah, Safwat Higazi, one of a coterie of ultra-Islamic Salafi preachers campaigning for him, bellowed to a cheering crowd that Morsy, 61, would restore the caliphate, the 7th century's "united states of Arabs."

Its capital "will not be Cairo, Mecca or Medina, but Jerusalem. ... Our cry will be 'Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem!'" -- alarming rhetoric in Israel, which claims Jerusalem as its capital.

"Yes, Jerusalem is our goal. We will pray in Jerusalem or we will die as martyrs on its threshold!" Higazi shouted to chants of "Tomorrow, Morsy will liberate Gaza!"

With a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California, Morsy was an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge, in the early 1980s; two of his children are U.S. citizens.

Today he lags behind three front-runners in a 13-man field as Egypt prepares to vote this week in its first truly competitive presidential race.

Yet he once chaired the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which won control of Egypt's parliament in January. (He resigned to run in this race when former Brotherhood deputy Khairat El Shater was disqualified.)

And that background means Morsy could win or force a runoff in mid-June.

Courting Islamic votes

After last year's ouster of the Mubarak regime and before parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood downplayed its Islamic roots and promoted political pluralism.

Now Islamist preacher and Morsy supporter Ragheb El Sergany proclaims that imposing Islam's Shariah law on all Egyptians "has been our project for 84 years. ... Islam is the solution to all our problems."

Morsy increasingly has embraced such views.

At rallies in Cairo, he has spoken very generally of stability, economic growth and a long list of other problems, while offering no solutions.

Outside the capital, he calls Shariah law "our protection" and Egypt and Saudi Arabia "the two pillars of the renaissance in the region."

At one rally, Morsy joined backers in chanting the Brotherhood slogan: "The Quran is our constitution. ... The prophet is our leader. ... Jihad is our method. ... Death in the name of God is our supreme hope."

He is courting the fragmented vote of ultra-religious Salafis and won the backing of their withdrawn presidential candidate, Abdullah Al-Shaal. One Salafi sheik has warned that "those who don't vote for Morsy, a snake will bite you in your grave for four years."

Morsy also demands freedom for Omar Abdel Rahman, "The Blind Sheikh" imprisoned in the United States for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. That demand is intended to appeal to members of Gama'a Al Islamiya, a terrorist group once led by Rahman that has renounced violence and entered Egyptian politics.

Warning of 'executions'

The Brotherhood has dominated political opposition here since the 1920s despite being officially banned and its members imprisoned for decades.

Yet polls put Morsy behind former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh, expelled by the Brotherhood in 2011 when he announced his candidacy; and Ahmed Shafiq, a prime minister under former President Hosni Mubarak.

Since he was not the Brotherhood's first choice, Egyptians often deride Morsy as a "spare tire." (A popular joke asks what you call a pile of old tires. Answer: "Morsy supporters.")

Disillusioned Egyptians accuse the Brotherhood of selling out last year's revolution in order to win power, or of failing to use its new power to improve Egyptians' lives.

Typical of that view is salesman Magdy Fathi, 27, who thinks support for the Brotherhood "has gone way down" and hurt Morsy as well.

But if this race had been held earlier, when Egyptians gave the Brotherhood its parliamentary majority, "Mohammed Morsy would be our president," he concedes.

Khaled Abdallah, 44, a religious affairs detective in Mubarak's Interior Ministry, likens the Brotherhood to snakes: "They wait quietly, and when they see something they want, they strike with their deadly venom and take it."

If Morsy or another Islamist wins the presidency, Abdallah warns, "there will be executions" and a commitment to destroy "Israel and the Jews."

'It would be a crisis'

Morsy is "the least charismatic candidate they could have run," according to Joshua Stacher, a Kent State University professor specializing in Egypt.

Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Arab politics at Washington's Georgetown University, agrees.

"Is the Brotherhood so powerful and strong that they are able to elect him?" he asks. "I am doubtful of that. ... This could be the first major blow against them since the revolution."

Others caution against counting out Morsy.

"I am most concerned about (his) chances," says Mohammed El Gibba, 27, a former Brotherhood member who supports Aboul Fatouh. "As someone who has been part of the mill of the Brotherhood, I know how it works -- the whole mobilization machine."

A base of up to 250,000 hard-core backers organizes every village, town and city, El Gibba explains; add other supporters, he says, and Morsy could have 2.5 million campaigners.

"I think Mohammed Morsy could get 6 million votes, around 20 to 25 percent," El Gibba predicts. "Anyone who gets that percent will be in the runoff."

And if the once-banned Islamic party adds the presidency to its control of parliament, he warns, "it would be a crisis. ... They would take Egypt and sink her."

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