( Los Angeles Times ) - This country's main Islamist party and other opposition groups are strengthening their appeal by using images of desperate Palestinians streaming out of the Gaza Strip to provoke wider protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 26-year-old regime.
Demonstrations in Cairo and throughout the country by the Muslim Brotherhood and other political groups ostensibly have been staged to declare Egyptian solidarity with the residents of Gaza.
But they are also aimed at weakening Mubarak, whom the groups criticize for oppression, economic shortcomings and close ties to Washington.
It is political theater punctuated with dangerous rhetoric. Mubarak's vast intelligence and security forces are attempting to prevent pro-Palestinian protests from erupting into sustained nationwide antigovernment rallies. But the Muslim Brotherhood and Kefaya, an umbrella opposition group of leftists and nationalists, are determined to do just that. The Muslim Brotherhood has sponsored 80 demonstrations since Wednesday, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians began pouring into Egypt through a breached border wall.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which favors a government guided by Sharia (religious) law, has renounced its violent past. Despite the arrests of hundreds of its members, the group enjoys extensive support among the poor and middle class and poses the nation's most significant political threat to Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.
The Palestinian cause is the crystallizing passion in the Arab world, but the Gaza border crisis has brought new urgency to a public relations battle between Islamists and secular governments, especially in Egypt.
It has also demonstrated that Hamas, the militant Islamist party that controls Gaza and is ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, remains a major factor in the future Palestinian equation, contrary to the wishes of Washington, Cairo, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
At the Rafah border crossing Monday, Hamas cooperated for the first time with an Egyptian effort to assert control over the border. Egyptian guards and Hamas forces coordinated security and used concrete and barbed wire to close at least two gaps in the barrier that had been opened by explosions. At least four gaps remained open, including two for cars.
Thousands of Palestinians went back and forth. Traffic, thinned by rain Sunday, was heavier Monday but down from last week's massive levels. Shoppers, however, found little to buy in the Egyptian Sinai, where prices began rising and the government limited the availability of food and other goods.
While Egyptian authorities debated how to shrink the number of Palestinians in Sinai, they also concentrated on domestic dissent. Police in recent days have broken up a number of protests and arrested scores of Muslim Brotherhood members and Kefaya activists.
Anti-government organizations in Egypt have historically been disparate, seeking different religious and secular agendas and lacking a unifying spirit other than disdain for Mubarak's government, which receives nearly $2 billion a year in U.S. aid and upholds an unpopular peace treaty with Israel.
The current political maneuverings between the government and opposition come as this nation of 73 million people is enduring persistent inflation, shrinking government subsidies and budget deficits.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whose members ran as independents and won 20 percent of the seats in Parliament in 2005, said its chief aim is to support Palestinians and condemn U.S. and Israeli policies. But the organization conceded that the protests have grown wider in scope. Banners in a Cairo demonstration of 2,000 protesters last week included sympathetic slogans to Palestinians and vitriol against Egypt, such as "A Country Without Justice."
"The regime dealt brutally with demonstrators because it is concerned about domestic stability," said Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. "The regime knows that there is public outrage for other reasons including inflation, unemployment and other accumulated problems. It fears that things will explode."
Egyptians are "terribly depressed by the domestic situation and want to express themselves by any means. They seized ( Gaza) as a chance to express their views," said Georges Ishaq, a leader of Kefaya group.
Mohamed Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said support for the Palestinians is giving the Muslim Brotherhood "a great deal of legitimacy. They're anti-Israeli and anti-American. They see themselves as the most vehement resistors and this is a big payoff for them. They have been very clear in focusing on the Palestinian issue."
Mubarak, for his part, is attempting to show that he is just as roused as Islamists over what he calls Israel's "collective punishment" of Palestinians. The president criticized Israel for retaliating against Hamas missile strikes with a fuel blockade of Gaza; days later, Hamas blew a hole in the border wall. Mubarak has received praise across the Arab world for allowing about 500,000 Palestinians to shop in Sinai.
The main problem the 79-year-old Mubarak faces in the Arab street, however, is his grudging support of U.S. and Israeli policies that isolated Hamas after the group seized Gaza from the Palestinian Authority run by President Mahmoud Abbas. Egypt was wary of Hamas exporting militants across the region, but the containment strategy, which included economic sanctions, failed.
The Rafah crossing was largely open until militants burrowed under the border into Israel and captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in June 2006. The Israelis tightened Gaza's borders in response. A year later, when Hamas fighters routed Palestinian Authority police and took control of Gaza, the border was sealed.
"You cannot go back to that same policy," said Said. " Egypt does not want to recognize Hamas as a legitimate government in Gaza. But you just can't leave a total vacuum. Egypt's concerned about extremists but you can't clash with Palestinians (crossing the border). You don't want to look like Israel at all." A slight readjustment appears to be under way. Aside from cooperating on limiting border traffic on Monday, Hamas is expected to send a delegation to Egypt on Wednesday to discuss ending the crisis. That's the same day officials from the rival Palestinian Authority, whose forces Mubarak would prefer to control the border crossing, will travel to Cairo for a separate meeting.
A central question in coming months will be Egypt's long-term relationship with Hamas and how the militant group will fit into a new Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative begun by the Bush administration in November. Most Egyptians are skeptical of the peace effort, regarding it as a hurried plan by a lame duck U.S. president that may embarrass their nation and other American allies in the region.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem and Noha el-Hennawy of the Times' Cairo bureau and special correspondent Rushi abu Alouf in Gaza contributed to this story.