Squeezing Islam's moderates.

Position:Egypt's moderate Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement

MOHAMMED AL MAAMOUN al Hodaiby slumped down into his chair. It was a surprising expression of relaxation, rather than of resignation, by the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman. Al Hodaiby had just described to The Middle East in near apocalyptic terms the consequences of recent government measures against the Islamist movement in Egypt. Yet his demeanour suggested anything but alarm.

"We are very concerned that our supporters may go over to the other side," Al Hodaiby exclaimed. This is not an oblique reference to the government. Rather, he is airing the possibility of an Islamist defection to the militant movements.

"If our supporters believe that we are not progressing in our causes, if they become frustrated with these setbacks, some may become radicalised," Al Hodaiby warns. Government actions, he says, may inadvertently contribute to a swelling of the militants' ranks.

Although technically banned, the Muslim Brotherhood has come to represent the largest opposition movement - legal or illegal - in Egyptian society. The Brotherhood controls a handful of key professional syndicates, and now dominates the once-moribund Socialist Labour party, today Egypt's largest parliamentary opposition party. Critics also point to a Brotherhood influence in the state-run media and educational system, and a gradual takeover of some non-governmental organisations. And the state, as well as many of Egypt's intellectuals, have reacted with varying gradations of alarm.

Yet concern is now raised that government moves against the Brotherhood will cause a dissipation of the middle ground. The disparity in wealth, corruption and casualties inflicted on innocents in the state's crackdown on terrorism remain largely unaddressed. Whether the discontents are drafted into the militants' camp or not, some say, depends very much on the existence of a moderate alternative.

"The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood remains committed to peaceful, legal channels, but there is no telling what the younger generations will do," says Fahmy Huweidi, a prominent columnist and advocate of a legalised Muslim Brotherhood. Recent government measures, Huweidi argues, will create new pressures on the younger generation to take radical action against social ills.

It is not, of course, an argument all will concede. Some observers of Islamic fundamentalism counter that this is only a scare tactic. The Muslim Brotherhood, they say, has long used the same contention as part of its drive for...

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