Muslim Brotherhood Unmatched In Grassroot Support

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One of the candidates running in Egypt's presidential election is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group, Egypt's largest and best-organized political group, won almost half the seats in Parliament earlier this year. But the presidential election is more of a challenge.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. So as we've heard, one big question is whether Egyptian voters will give the presidency to an Islamist candidate. The leaders in pre-election polls include a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, as we've heard, and there's another leading candidate who used to be in the Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood already has the biggest share of seats in Egypt's parliament. And now leaders of this 84-year-old party face the challenge and the possibility of winning the presidency.

Merrit Kennedy reports from Alexandria.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Alexandria has long been a core base of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but even here the vote for the movement's candidate Mohammed Morsi looked very close.

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KENNEDY: At party headquarters here, a group of men are bent over laptops, crunching numbers and making projections about turnout of the group's supporters. Across the hall, volunteers are furiously making calls on their cell phones, trying to assess their chances. Mohamed Soudan, the foreign relations secretary of the party's Alexandria branch, says they're seeing lower turnout of their supporters than they hoped.

MOHAMED SOUDAN: I don't think that this is the quantity of the amount of the people which we were looking for in the beginning. I don't know. It's not the same with the parliamentary elections. It's different.

KENNEDY: He says one challenge is the amount of time they had to prepare for the election. The group had long promised not to run a presidential candidate, but reversed on that decision less than two months before the vote. Their original candidate, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified because he served prison time under Mubarak. Mohammed Morsi, the group's second choice, moved into the spotlight just a month before the election.

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KENNEDY: Morsi is popular in Alexandria, but his campaign hasn't been able to convince everyone who voted for the Brotherhood for parliament to cast ballots for him.

MONA MAHMOUD IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: Mona Mahmoud Ibrahim, a housewife, has just cast her vote in the middle-class neighborhood of Fleming. She voted for Muslim Brotherhood candidates in the parliamentary elections, but decided she preferred former Brotherhood member and reformist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh for the presidency. Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said in a phone interview that Aboul Fotouh's candidacy poses a serious challenge to the Brotherhood, a group known for its strict party discipline. This is the first time, he says, an individual who left the group enjoys grassroots support.

SHADI HAMID: And that poses an existential threat, because it can lead to a split within the organization. People can start to say, well, why do we have to stay in the Brotherhood when we can become involved through other channels?

KENNEDY: He says that now, for the first time, the Brotherhood's top position for opposition Islamist activity is being challenged. He also points to high expectations for the group in parliament that haven't been fulfilled. Mohammed Madany, a correspondent for the Brotherhood's satellite TV channel Misr 25, says another reason this election is challenging for the group is the reappearance of former regime candidates such as Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak's prime minister when he was ousted from power.

MOHAMMED MADANY: (Through translator) During the parliamentary elections, the forces that belonged to the former regime were unorganized. But as time has gone by, they have become now a strong bloc that seeks to restore the regime once again. That makes it more difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood.

KENNEDY: Morsi's share of the vote is difficult to predict, due to conflicting poll results. Madany says the Brotherhood's campaign strategy has been direct contact with the street. Because they have supporters in all segments of society, he says, they're able to tune their message to diverse audiences. Again, analyst Shadi Hamid.

HAMID: They still have a real chance of getting to the second round and even perhaps winning, because no one can challenge their ground game.

KENNEDY: Despite this challenging election, he says, the Brotherhood is still unmatched in terms of grassroots support across Egypt. For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Alexandria, Egypt.

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