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Egypt ruling party eases up Islamist talk

CAIRO -- After decades of dreaming of power, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood finally comes face to face with the question of how to use it, as a new parliament that it dominates opens today.

The fundamentalist group has eased off talk of Islamic-style legislation, saying it will focus on fixing Egypt's ailing economy, and it has even backed off introducing further explicit Islamic references in the new constitution it will have a major hand in writing. But it has other tools to push Egypt toward greater religious conservatism.

The Brotherhood's caution in its Islamic rhetoric and parliament agenda reflect its worries of a backlash against it at a time when Egypt's politics are still in major flux.

Egyptians are eager to see quick improvements in an economy that has been battered by turmoil and mismanagement since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February. They also want signs of long-term change in a system in which corruption was rife, nearly half the population fell to the edge of poverty or below, youths searched in vain for jobs and housing, and neighborhoods fell into dilapidation as Mubarak's regime built clean new suburbs for the few wealthy.

Moreover, how much authority the Brotherhood will have to bring changes remains unsettled. The military, which took over when Mubarak was ousted, holds ultimate power for at least six more months. The Brotherhood and ruling generals are expected to jostle and cajole each other over dividing power, and the Brotherhood is wary of moves that could cause a clash.

"We can't talk about implementing Islamic Shariah law when the country is experiencing such devastating economic problems," said Mohammed Gouda, a party policymaker.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report yesterday that the West must recognize that Islamists are "the majority preference" in Egypt and other Arab countries and will naturally grow stronger in a democratic system. -- AP

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