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Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on Egypt in doubt on eve of presidential vote

Abdel Aziz Saed, a 42-year-old shoe salesman who works in Cairo’s Giza district, holds a seemingly popular sentiment here about the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest social and political organization. Saed voted for the Brotherhood’s candidate during parliamentary elections last fall but he won’t do it again this week, when Egypt holds its first democratic presidential election.

“Instead of reducing chaos, they are creating it,” said Saed, who plans to vote for former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. “What have they done in Parliament? Has anything changed here?”

Yet a few days later a Brotherhood rally produced thousands of people, enough to line the streets of Cairo and parts of the countryside for miles, in a push to create a human chain across the country as a show of support for the Brotherhood’s lackluster presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi.

With two days of presidential balloting set to begin Wednesday, the question that’s hanging over Egypt’s nascent political system is this: Will the Muslim Brotherhood prove once again that years of underground organizing – when the movement was outlawed under toppled President Hosni Mubarak – are paying off now in an unbeatable campaign machine? Or will disaffection with the Brotherhood’s performance in Parliament, the country’s economic collapse and bickering among the candidates give the edge to other political groups, even a Mubarak holdover such as Shafik?

Conventional wisdom in Cairo says the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party won’t be able to overcome the lack of charisma of Morsi, a candidate often referred to as the “spare tire” choice the party made after its preferred candidate was disqualified from the race. According to polls here, the reliability of which is uncertain, Morsi is running as low as fifth in a 13-man field, too weak to make it into the runoff June 16. The Freedom and Justice Party also has lost the support of the Salafists, Muslim conservatives who accounted for 25 percent of all votes in the parliamentary elections.

It’s difficult, however, not to remain impressed by the Brotherhood’s organizational abilities, honed over its 84-year history as a furtive social and political movement. The thousands of demonstrators who turned out for the movement’s chain rally last week carried Morsi posters and repeated talking points they’d been given by the organization: The Brotherhood is more important than the candidate; personality isn’t enough reason to support someone; the candidate should have a plan like Morsi’s.

This past weekend in the Cairo neighborhood of Helwan, Brotherhood volunteers bought up all the meat, then handed it out to passing motorists, with an admonition to vote for Morsi.

“You can never underestimate the power of large political machines on Election Day,” said Ibrahim el Houdaiby, a senior researcher at the House of Wisdom, a Cairo-based independent research center. “They will make sure every supporter votes.”

A win for the Brotherhood almost certainly would lead to weakened U.S.-Egyptian relations. The Brotherhood has long criticized Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and has pushed for greater Egyptian independence from U.S. policies.

Results of the Egyptian overseas vote, released Friday, put Morsi in third place overall and winning in Yemen and Sudan. Though the turnout was only a few thousand, it’s the best indicator thus far of Morsi’s standing in a landscape in which the nearly daily surveys of voters never made clear who was polled, what the margin of error was or the methodology used. Each campaign, including Morsi’s, claims that its polls find its candidate in the lead.

Perhaps the biggest drag for the Brotherhood is the record of Parliament, where Brotherhood members held nearly half the seats yet didn’t pass any significant legislation or challenge the country’s ruling military council on key issues such as who selects the prime minister.

In addition, many Egyptians now distrust the Brotherhood and suspect it of trying to monopolize power, a feeling bolstered by the movement’s decision to nominate a presidential candidate after it had vowed that it would not. Its effort to dominate the panel charged with writing a new constitution led to charges that the Brotherhood was self-serving and was pushing a more religiously conservative state than voters wanted.

The Brotherhood blames a military government that it claims is still hostile to the movement for its woes. The Egyptian media, which remain controlled by the military and remnants of the Mubarak regime, also are against the Brotherhood, the movement claims.

“If Superman came to power he couldn’t have been able to bring about any change because of the military,” Shazly el Maamoun, a 36-year-old dermatologist and Morsi supporter, told a passerby during last week’s street rally.

Azza el Garf, a Muslim Brotherhood member of Parliament, defended her work and blamed the country’s military rulers.

“We passed a lot of laws that would improve the life of the Egyptian people,” she said. “The executive has not passed those laws, so the Egyptian citizen has not felt the change.”

Brotherhood members express concern, however, worrying that there’s no way their candidate can win anywhere near the 47 percent of the vote that Brotherhood members took in the parliamentary elections. Six weeks, they say, hasn’t been enough time to introduce a candidate who was selected only when longtime Brotherhood strategist and financier Khairat el Shater was disqualified.

“People don’t know Morsi. . . . If we had more time, I could assure you that Morsi would win in the first round,” said Dr. Amr Darrag, the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary general in Giza.

Voter response to the rally last week offered no clear clue. Some people honked in support as they drove past the thousands who lined Cairo’s major road along the Nile River. A military officer cursed as he whizzed by. A taxi driver yelled, “Liar.” Still others were taken by the scene.

Mohammed Hadi, 48, a finance manager who drives a taxi on the side, was impressed. “Is there anyone else who can draw that kind of crowd?” he asked. “Can Obama get a line of supporters on the street like this in America?”

In the final days of the race, Morsi’s campaign statements, which previously had offered a centralist position on most issues, turned conservative, in what many here see as a desperate bid to turn out voters. He vowed to implement Islamic shariah law in the strictest terms and suggested a more Islamist-dominated government, though he continued to promise to respect human rights, press freedoms and democratic ideals. His foreign policy calls for improving relations with other Arab countries and African nations. He also called for Egypt to make decisions independent of guidance from the United States.

A former parliamentarian who earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California, Morsi, 60, has two children with American citizenship. At various campaign stops he appears to be under the guidance of a well-run political machine. He travels with a huge entourage and rarely speaks off script.

After delivering a speech last week, he pretended not to hear a question from a reporter who cornered him afterward. His staffers pushed the candidate out of the way. Finally, when he no longer could pretend plausibly that he didn’t hear the question, he answered simply, “Ask my campaign.”

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