ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, Oct. 18 (RNS)--Megaphone to mouth, headscarf modestly inplace, and the million-dollar smile of a political wannabe flashing,Jihan el-Halafawi is sending dirt-poor voters from this seaside city themessage they want to hear.
If she is elected to parliament, Halafawi announced one recentevening, she will fight for good schools, good housing and bringing theGod-fearing basics back to daily Egyptian life.
The stump speech, Halafawi's handshaking plunge into the smilingcrowds, and the roar of approval from hundreds of banner-carrying menand women gathered in Alexandria's hardscrabble Al Raml district couldbe the daily workout of any political candidate.
Only Halafawi is a member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a groupthat is supposedly outlawed and--as the first round of Egypt'sparliamentary elections got under way this week--increasingly harassed by state authorities.
Perhaps more remarkable, she is the first female Brotherhood-backedcandidate running for Egyptian parliament.
Halafawi's reaction can be summed up with a shrug.
"It was one of the principles of the Brotherhood that women have thesame rights as men," said the 48-year-old housewife, who is running asan independent candidate in the October-November legislative vote. "Noone said women can't participate politically. And this is not the firsttime Muslim women have been in parliament."
But others believe Halafawi's candidacy supports a larger campaign:for the 72-year-old Brotherhood to remain relevant here, as it confrontsgrowing competition from other Islamic groups, and narrowing politicaloptions.
In recent years, the Brotherhood has launched several Web pages andbriefly appointed a London spokesman to massage its message to the West.At the organization's immaculate Cairo headquarters, 79-year-oldBrotherhood spokesman Manmoun al Hodeiby juggles cell and office phonesto handle a steady stream of inquiries.
Perhaps most importantly, thegroup recently announced it would broaden its ranks to include CopticChristians.
What difference these changes have made is a matter of dispute.
"I think the popularity of the Brotherhood is increasing," Halafawisaid. "I see it when I walk in the street and gather with my supporters.If it seems we are less popular, it is only because we are deprived ofthe right to gather lawfully."
But critics argue the Brotherhood's aging leadership is out of touchwith a new generation of Muslims, and unable to crack the country'sclannish rural politics. Moreover, despite growing religiousconservatism in Egypt, many here remain repelled by the organization'scall for an Islamic state.
"In a free election, they wouldn't get more than 15-20 percent ofthe vote," said Hishem Kassem, publisher of the independent Cairo Times."They're Egypt's only real grass-roots political movement, but theywouldn't stand a chance outside the cities."
What's clear is the government of President Hosni Mubarak, whichsuccessfully crushed militant Islam during the 1990s, still considerspolitical Islam a threat to its near-total domination of power. It views the threat as credibleenough to have arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members during this year'spre-election roundup, and to sideline Brotherhood candidates fromEgypt's professional syndicates.
In a separate move, the government also froze the Brotherhood-alliedLabor Party in May and banned its Al Shaab newspaper from the streets.
For the Brotherhood, such measures are nothing new. Founded in 1928by schoolteacher-cleric Hassan al-Banna, the group has ricocheted fromuseful ally to political pariah, under King Farouk, and later underformer Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
Today, the Brotherhood has developed into an international movement,with 70 chapters across the world. Locally, it draws a solid butuncounted core of lawyers, doctors and blue-collar workers. With itssoup kitchens and prisoner assistance services, emergency aid andinformal schooling, it is also Egypt's only opposition group withwidespread grass-roots support.
The Brotherhood's street power was flexed most recently during twodays of student riots in May. Thousands of Egyptians demonstrated atCairo's Al Azhar University against "A Banquet for Seaweed" after theShaab newspaper crusaded against the Syrian novel for "defaming" Islam.
And on Alexandria's streets, Egyptians like Mohammed Salem continueto see Islam--as the Brotherhood slogan goes--as the solution.
"It solves all the problems in our lives, for men and women, girlsand boys," said the 42-year-old civil engineer as he followed the crowdof ebullient Halafawi supporters. "I will vote for sister Jihan becauseshe will speak about our problems."
But the prospect sister Jihan will speak out in parliament any timesoon seems unlikely. During Egypt's widely criticized 1995 legislativevote, not a single Brotherhood member was elected out of 150 candidates.Brotherhood spokesman Al Hodeiby says about 1,000 of the group'ssupporters have been arrested in recent months, including severalparliamentary candidates. Although many have reportedly been released,human rights groups believe about 500 remain jailed.