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CAIRO (Reuters) - Political groups with a secular vision of Egypt are racing to build a coalition to compete against the nation's better established Islamists in parliamentary elections planned for September.
Their challenge is to create a united force out of what was largely an Internet-based, youth-led campaign that appealed to national pride over religion to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in February and end President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.
They face tough opponents. The Muslim Brotherhood, for one.
Officially banned but allowed some political space under Mubarak, it is best positioned to benefit from a quick vote. It says it aims to win 35 to 40 percent of the seats in Parliament.
The Islamist group that took a back seat in the early part of the uprising that toppled Mubarak on February 11 has a grass-roots network, financial muscle and broad appeal in a country where conservative Muslim values are common.
"The biggest challenge is of course illiteracy, ignorance and the ability of groups that use religion to taint the image of all the civil parties by labeling them atheists or against religion," said Emad Gad, a leading member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, a liberal group that is trying to organize.
"We are trying to form a large, strong coalition before the elections," Mr. Gad said in an interview. He added that the coalition should unite "all the powers in support of a civil state based on citizenship and equality."
A tight timetable for the elections -- set by the military council that has been ruling Egypt since Mubarak's ouster -- gives new parties very little time to gather cash or popular support for their campaigns. Secular groups say the timetable stifles competition.
"I fear that there would be a Parliament in the coming September that is not a real representation of the nation," Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a presidential contender, said in an interview with the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
In a referendum in March, 77 percent of voters said they backed constitutional amendments that would allow the military to hold a swift parliamentary election in September and presidential elections before the end of the year.
The Brotherhood backed the constitutional amendments and the army's timetable.
Several reformist parties pushed for a "No" vote, saying that the Constitution should be completely rewritten and that more time was needed before elections.
But those reformers have yet to find a single voice. In discussions among all the liberal parties no one opposed the idea of a coalition, "but now the question is when and how," said Gad.
The Social Democrats, he said, were seeking to raise awareness in Cairo, Alexandria, southern Egypt and other areas.
But the party and similar newly emerging groups do not have the reach of the Brotherhood, a decades-old organization. The Brotherhood was a target of repression under the Mubarak regime but it skirted a ban on political activities by running candidates as independents. It built support in professional groups and through charity and social work.
Secularists who are trying to organize parties say they are not against religion but oppose its politicization. They say the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups used misleading religious slogans to sway votes in the March referendum.
Nabil Abdel Fattah, political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, said the term "secular" has been "transformed into a defiled, vilified term."
"This is part of a strategy," he added, "to distort language and terminology, used ingeniously by the Islamist wave in an attempt to mar public awareness."
On Egypt's streets, the Arabic word for "secular" is often equated with "atheist," a taboo idea.
Posters with the Brotherhood's logo during the referendum campaign carried slogans such as "agreeing to the constitutional amendments is a religious duty."
Leaflets by other Islamist groups said a secular state meant one without religion.
The Brotherhood said it did not exploit religion in its campaign and did not tell members to distribute such posters. But secular activists accuse it and other Islamist groups of questioning the religious credentials of those calling for a secular democracy. In their campaigns, new political groups have replaced the term "secular government" with "civil government" to try to finesse the issue.
Some secular politicians also fear that the September timing for the parliamentary elections will play into Islamist hands because it immediately follows Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, when religious fervor is heightened.
They say the timing suggests that the military now favors the Brotherhood, perhaps out of a concern that secular reformers may be more ready than Islamists to question its network of business and other interests.
"The army wants to protect its interests," said Marwa Farouk, founder of a new leftist party. The Brotherhood's interests, he said, "don't conflict with the army. They have formed an alliance."
Military officials deny taking sides and say their only concern is to hand over power as soon as possible to civilians. Western diplomats have asserted there is no sign the military wants to retain power, though it may remain in the background as Egypt's "guardian."
"The armed forces neither help nor back any specific segment of the nation," Major General Ismail Etman of the military council said at a news conference this month.
Some Egyptians argue that, to counter the Islamists, secular-oriented groups should turn to a ready-made political network by reaching out to candidates with links to Mubarak's disbanded National Democratic Party.
The NDP's old network of local notables, clan loyalties and business interests remains intact.
"New political parties must start handpicking and taking in good former NDP candidates who already have strong networks in various electoral constituencies," said Gamal Guemeih, a 27-year-old financial analyst.
"Secular parties have to accept this option if they want to stand up to Egypt's rising Islamist groups."
Such a tactical alliance, however, could be tough to stomach for those who gambled everything by rallying in Cairo's streets against the oppression, crony capitalism and massive corruption of Mubarak's regime.