ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, Oct. 18 (RNS)--Megaphone to mouth, headscarf modestly in place, and the million-dollar smile of a political wannabe flashing, Jihan el-Halafawi is sending dirt-poor voters from this seaside city the message they want to hear.
If she is elected to parliament, Halafawi announced one recent evening, she will fight for good schools, good housing and bringing the God-fearing basics back to daily Egyptian life.
The stump speech, Halafawi's handshaking plunge into the smiling crowds, and the roar of approval from hundreds of banner-carrying men and women gathered in Alexandria's hardscrabble Al Raml district could be the daily workout of any political candidate.
Only Halafawi is a member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is supposedly outlawed and--as the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections got under way this week--increasingly harassed by state authorities.
Perhaps more remarkable, she is the first female Brotherhood-backed candidate 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 the same rights as men," said the 48-year-old housewife, who is running as an independent candidate in the October-November legislative vote. "No one said women can't participate politically. And this is not the first time 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 confronts growing competition from other Islamic groups, and narrowing political options.
In recent years, the Brotherhood has launched several Web pages and briefly appointed a London spokesman to massage its message to the West. At the organization's immaculate Cairo headquarters, 79-year-old Brotherhood spokesman Manmoun al Hodeiby juggles cell and office phones to handle a steady stream of inquiries.
Perhaps most importantly, the group recently announced it would broaden its ranks to include Coptic Christians.
What difference these changes have made is a matter of dispute.
"I think the popularity of the Brotherhood is increasing," Halafawi said. "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 of the right to gather lawfully."
But critics argue the Brotherhood's aging leadership is out of touch with a new generation of Muslims, and unable to crack the country's clannish rural politics. Moreover, despite growing religious conservatism in Egypt, many here remain repelled by the organization's call for an Islamic state.
"In a free election, they wouldn't get more than 15-20 percent of the vote," said Hishem Kassem, publisher of the independent Cairo Times. "They're Egypt's only real grass-roots political movement, but they wouldn't stand a chance outside the cities."
What's clear is the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which successfully crushed militant Islam during the 1990s, still considers political Islam a threat to its near-total domination of power. It views the threat as credible enough to have arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members during this year's pre-election roundup, and to sideline Brotherhood candidates from Egypt's professional syndicates.
In a separate move, the government also froze the Brotherhood-allied Labor Party in May and banned its Al Shaab newspaper from the streets.
For the Brotherhood, such measures are nothing new. Founded in 1928 by schoolteacher-cleric Hassan al-Banna, the group has ricocheted from useful ally to political pariah, under King Farouk, and later under former 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 but uncounted core of lawyers, doctors and blue-collar workers. With its soup kitchens and prisoner assistance services, emergency aid and informal schooling, it is also Egypt's only opposition group with widespread grass-roots support.
The Brotherhood's street power was flexed most recently during two days of student riots in May. Thousands of Egyptians demonstrated at Cairo's Al Azhar University against "A Banquet for Seaweed" after the Shaab newspaper crusaded against the Syrian novel for "defaming" Islam.
And on Alexandria's streets, Egyptians like Mohammed Salem continue to see Islam--as the Brotherhood slogan goes--as the solution.
"It solves all the problems in our lives, for men and women, girls and boys," said the 42-year-old civil engineer as he followed the crowd of ebullient Halafawi supporters. "I will vote for sister Jihan because she will speak about our problems."
But the prospect sister Jihan will speak out in parliament any time soon seems unlikely. During Egypt's widely criticized 1995 legislative vote, not a single Brotherhood member was elected out of 150 candidates. Brotherhood spokesman Al Hodeiby says about 1,000 of the group's supporters have been arrested in recent months, including several parliamentary candidates. Although many have reportedly been released, human rights groups believe about 500 remain jailed.
The troubles have touched Halafawi as well. In early October, police briefly arrested her campaign manager along with her husband, prominent Brotherhood member Ibrahim al-Zafarani.
"The parliamentary elections are false. This is proof that we exist," said al-Zafarani, who argued the government crackdown offered backhanded testament to the Brotherhood's appeal.
But other Islamic groups are beginning to angle for a piece of that political territory. Over the past two years, Egypt's two main militant Islamic organizations, the Gama'a Islamiya and the Islamic Jihad, renounced violence. Now, members of both are now trying to form a political party.
But the Brotherhood's greatest competition may come from within. In 1996, young disaffected members split to form a separate organization. Calling itself the Wasat Party, the group welcomed women and Coptic Christians early on, and pitched a message of religious tolerance.
"The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is that it is dominated bythe old guard," said Wasat's leader, Abu Elela Maadi. "We faced many fights to change their opinions about women in society, about women in the Muslim Brotherhood.
"So now there is one women candidate in Alexandria," he added of Halafawi. "But why not in Cairo? Why not in Beni Suef?"
Like the Brotherhood, the Wasat and other fledgling groups are banned under Egyptian law, which forbids religious-based parties. And Egyptians like Youssef Sidhom hope they will stay that way.
"Whether they color their agenda in pink or they reveal their true cause is not the point,"said Sidhom, the Coptic Christian editor of Egypt's Al Watani newspaper. "They are after an Islamic state. And as an Egyptian--not just as a Copt--I will never welcome it."