CAIRO – For decades under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's Islamists of all shades were disenfranchised, thrown in jail or targeted in crackdown after crackdown. Now their tormentor of some 30 years is gone, and they are rushing to claim a spot in the country's new political landscape.
From the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that long ago renounced violence, to the militant groups that fought Mubarak's forces and gunned down tourists, to the increasingly powerful, ultraconservative Salafis, the different groups are gearing up to contest legislative elections promised by the ruling military within six months.
Happy to be rid at last of their pariah status, they are forming political parties of their own, organizing supporters into committees, and looking at potential candidates to contest what promises to be the country's freest nationwide vote in memory.
The thought of Islamists on the ballot in Egypt may be disconcerting to some at home and abroad, but many in Egypt are seeking to allay such fears by arguing that the parties are not strong enough to win a majority in a free election.
Nonetheless, the Islamists are certain to be a political force in post-Mubarak Egypt. Surprisingly, the 18-day protests that forced Mubarak to step down Feb. 11 have shown that liberal and leftist ideologies enjoy wide support among Egyptians, with their adherents able to counter or even outweigh the Islamists in a national vote.
The appeal of the Islamists in Egypt, a conservative and mostly Muslim nation of 80 million people, is undeniable and growing, partly because many of the country's poor found refuge in their faith as they struggled with the social inequities of daily life.
The Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group, is a good example of the new political order. It is implicitly recognized by the ruling generals as a legitimate group, and one of its supporters was among a small band of legal experts who drafted key constitutional amendments. The group also has declared its intention to set up a political party — the Freedom and Justice Party.
But the Brotherhood also said it had no intention to field a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for later this year.
The extent of the group's strength was manifested five years ago when it made a surprisingly strong showing in legislative elections, winning 20 percent of seats despite the Mubarak regime's use of violence and fraud to swing the vote in favor of the then-ruling National Democratic Party.
The Salafis, whose followers observe the purist rules of Islam's early days, were allowed under Mubarak to grow in strength to counter the Brotherhood.
But those two are not the only Islamist groups now enjoying a level of official tolerance that was unimaginable just weeks ago.
The once-powerful Gamaa al-Islamiyah, a violent group that fought Mubarak's government in an on-and-off insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, is debating whether to form a political party of its own to contest the election. A breakaway faction from the Gamaa also is in the process of forming a party.
One of the Gamaa's top leaders, Assem Abdel-Maged, said the main group was likely not to form a party and will instead lend its support to candidates from the Brotherhood or the moderate Islamist party al-Wasat, formed by a breakaway faction of the Brotherhood.
"Becoming involved in politics will mean lowering our expectations and ambitions as a group whose core activity is to spread the teachings of Islam," said Abdel-Maged, who spent 25 years in jail for his role in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Muslim zealots. He was released in 2006.
"There is so much work for us to do after 60 years of tyranny," he said, alluding to the 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy and ushered in military rule in Egypt.
The Gamaa, whose stronghold is in the southern city of Assiut, renounced violence several years ago when its jailed leaders, including Abdel-Maged, "revised" their ideology to embrace the spreading of Islamic teachings and social work.
Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist groups, says part of their appeal in Egypt comes from the popular sympathy they enjoyed as victims of Mubarak's harsh crackdowns. That feeling, he said, has often translated into winning protest votes.
But a free and transparent election with a respectable turnout — balloting under Mubarak routinely drew only 10 to 15 percent of registered voters — would probably work against the Islamist groups. Such an election would attract many young, first-time voters — most of whom are not followers of the Brotherhood or any other Islamist group, Rashwan said.
"If 50 percent of Egypt's estimated 50 million voters actually vote, Islamist groups would be cut down to their actual size, while the liberals and leftists would make gains," said Rashwan, who expects that youths who used the Internet's social networks to organize the anti-Mubarak uprising would employ the same get-out-the-vote tactics.
Yet the fear of Islamists taking over in the Arab world's most populous nation endures.
Mubarak had for years told the West and Egyptians alike that his reluctance to introduce democratic reforms, keep harsh emergency laws in place and allow his hated security agencies to detain and torture with impunity were necessary to stop Islamists from seizing power.
The effects of his argument appear to have outlasted his rule.
Asked how the United States would react if the Brotherhood took power, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Egyptian youths in an online question-and-answer session last week that it was up to the voters to elect whom they want.
Washington, she said, did not want to see Egypt's democratic process hijacked — a thinly veiled allusion to widespread speculation over the Brotherhood's intentions — but rather, it hoped to see safeguards built in to ensure that it's a true democracy.
"Because too often, when people get elected, they think of themselves as being the only person who can serve a country and they never want to have another election," she said.
Clinton's fears might be partially justified.
The Brotherhood remains committed to installing an Islamic government in Egypt and is ambivalent about what role the Christians and women should play under such an administration. The group insists it would not rescind Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but openly supports armed resistance against the Jewish state.
Its declaration to set up a political party has been met by skepticism in liberal circles.
Respected author Salah Issa, writing in Sunday's al-Ahram daily, warned that the dominant thought inside the group remained committed to the creation of a religious party with a civil cover, and that the Brotherhood's party may not be able to shed the religious character of its parent.
"A civil party is not one whose members wear suits and ties, but one that clearly separates between what is religious and what is civil," he wrote. "This is what the democrats must be telling the Brotherhood and other political Islamist groups that are rushing today to say they are about to create civil parties with religion as its underpinning ideology."
But Ammar Ali Hassan, another expert on Islamic groups, says the fear of Islamists in politics is unfounded and could be partly the work of "counterrevolutionaries."
The Gamaa, he argued, has realized that "peaceful pressure" to create an Islamic society and interact with the populace are far more effective than violence.
"The counterrevolutionaries are trying to scare everyone about the Islamists and are feeding tension to spread chaos," he said.