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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 November 2005, 16:07 GMT
Egypt mixes politics and religion
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab affairs analyst

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood candidates for parliamentary elections pose in front of the slogan: "Islam is the solution"
The Brotherhood believes its slogan is in line with the constitution
With only one week to go before Egyptians begin electing a new parliament a row has broken out about mixing politics and religion.

At issue is a slogan used by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which says "Islam is the solution" (al-Islam Houwa al-Hall).

The ruling National Democratic Party, as well as secularist politicians, want to ban the use of the slogan, but the powerful group is adamant it will not give up its identity to please its opponents.

The Muslim Brotherhood says its programme is in line with the Egyptian constitution, which recognises Islam as the state religion and Islamic Sharia law as one of the main sources for legislation.

The group has for decades campaigned using this slogan.

Polarisation

But their opponents say it is a sensationalist phrase which can foment sectarian strife in a country with a sizeable Christian minority.

Separating religion from politics will require a lot more than banning the Muslim Brothers from using their slogan

Only last month, the port city of Alexandria saw some of the worst sectarian disturbances the country has ever seen.

The problem of mixing politics and religion goes far beyond the concerns of this parliamentary election.

It strikes at the heart of the polarisation that Egypt has seen over the past few decades, with the rise of militant Islam and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood emerging as the most powerful opposition group in the country.

Some even talk of the re-Islamisation of Egypt, where Islamic faith is increasingly invoked as the exclusive norm for social as well as political and cultural behaviour.

Religious messages

Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only group "guilty" of mixing politics and religion.

Hundreds of Islamist students demonstrate pressing for democratic reforms
Islamists have participated in Egyptian politics for decades

Despite presenting itself as a secular party, the National Democratic Party itself has often been accused of pandering to religious sentiments to consolidate its hold on power.

State broadcasters, which are controlled by the NDP, have over the years devoted an increasing number of hours to religious programming. These programmes may ostensibly be aimed at counterbalancing the more radical message of the Islamists, but in effect they serve to entrench the dominant religious frame of mind in Egypt, critics say.

Clearly, separating religion from politics will require a lot more than banning the Muslim Brothers from using their slogan.

Defiant

Despite being outlawed, the Muslim Brotherhood remains the largest opposition block in the current parliament.

The group is clearly determined to increase its share of parliamentary seats in what will probably turn out to be the most hotly contested election in the history of Egypt.

A new constitutional amendment means that only parties that control 10% of the lower and upper houses of parliament can field candidates in future presidential elections.

No opposition party yet meets that requirement.




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