Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood wins seats

The leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday credited public mistrust, frustration and anger with President Hosni Mubarak's regime for his group's fivefold increase in parliamentary seats with one round of voting still to go.The Interior Ministry said the fundamentalist group's loyalists won 29 more seats in Saturday runoffs, continuing an unexpectedly strong showing. While Mubarak's party will maintain a big majority, the Brotherhood is assured of being the second biggest legislative bloc.

The result was seen as a rebuff for the secular government, which has been one of the strongest U.S. allies in the Middle East.In an interview with The Associated Press, Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mehdi Akef sought to allay Western concerns about the group's newfound strength, saying it would not try to change Egypt's foreign policy, including its peace treaty with Israel.

"We do not recognize Israel, but we will not fight it. We will respect all the treaties," said Akef, whose organization is considered the mother group for many Islamic fundamentalist movements, including the militant Hamas in the Palestinian territories.Asked if the Brotherhood would try to prevent Hamas from making peace with Israel, Akef said, "We have nothing to do with Palestinian internal politics."

The Brotherhood - banned 51 years ago but tolerated as a behind-the-scenes political force - conducted an intense campaign and has raised its parliament representation to 76 seats with a third round of voting to come Thursday.

The group's candidates, who run as independents but whose Islamist leanings are widely known, held only 15 of 454 seats in the last parliament.

"People are outraged by the performance of this government and its ruling party. Both have fed people nothing but bitterness," said the 77-year-old Akef, who spent 20 years in Egyptian prisons."These great people have no confidence in this government. They have shown that they are against tyranny and with us," he added.

Brotherhood-backed candidates did well despite what appeared to be a determined government effort to block supporters from reaching the polls and slow the group's building momentum.

Even without the election's third round, the Brotherhood has captured enough seats to nominate a presidential candidate in 2011 under new constitutional rules, and weak performances by secular parties will make it the biggest opposition bloc.After completion of the second round of balloting, Mubarak's National Democratic Party has 197 seats, the Brotherhood controls 76 and other candidates have 28. Election judges stopped the voting in three districts Saturday, citing irregularities.

The vote was a test of the U.S.-allied Mubarak's pledge to open up the authoritarian political system. But as the Brotherhood showed unexpected strength in the initial voting, security forces and backers of the ruling party increasingly turned to violence in an attempt to blunt the challenge.

The elections also will provide a test of the Brotherhood's claim that it no longer represents the radical fringe of Egyptian politics and isn't just a group that spouts Islamic ideals with no true political and economic program.

The Brotherhood campaign made a merger of government and religion a key issue, threatening to deepen Egypt's deep secular-religious divide. The election came on the heals of violent clashes in Alexandria between Muslims and Christians last month in which four people died.

Many secular Egyptians worry the Brotherhood is using the political system as a means to gain power before abolishing any trace of democracy.

Asked about those concerns, Akef said: "We respect all freedoms and believe in rotating power and in the ballot boxes, now and for all", reports Mercury News. I.L.

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