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Group banned in Egypt wins more seats

CAIRO -- The leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood yesterday attributed his group's fivefold increase in parliamentary seats to public mistrust, frustration, and anger with President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

The Interior Ministry said the fundamentalist group's loyalists won 29 more seats in Saturday runoffs, continuing an unexpectedly strong showing. While Mubarak's party will maintain a large majority, the Brotherhood is assured of being the second biggest legislative bloc.

A third round of voting is set for Thursday.

Saturday's results were seen as a rebuff for the secular government, which has been one of the strongest US allies in the Middle East.

In an interview, Mohammed Mehdi Akef, the leader of the Brotherhood, sought to allay Western concerns about the group's newfound strength, saying it would not try to change Egypt's foreign policy, including its peace treaty with Israel.

''We do not recognize Israel, but we will not fight it. We will respect all the treaties," said Akef, whose organization is considered the mother group for many Islamic fundamentalist movements, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Asked whether the Brotherhood would try to prevent Hamas from making peace with Israel, Akef said: ''We have nothing to do with Palestinian internal politics."

The Brotherhood -- banned 51 years ago but tolerated as a behind-the-scenes political force -- conducted an intense campaign and has raised its Parliament representation to 76 seats.

The group's candidates, who run as independents but whose Islamist leanings are widely known, held only 15 of 454 seats in the last Parliament.

''People are outraged by the performance of this government and its ruling party. Both have fed people nothing but bitterness," said Akef, 77, who spent 20 years in Egyptian prisons.

Brotherhood-backed candidates did well despite what appeared to be a determined government effort to block supporters from reaching the polls and slow the group's building momentum.

After completion of the second round of balloting, Mubarak's National Democratic Party has 197 seats, the Brotherhood controls 76, and other candidates have 28. Election judges stopped the voting in three districts Saturday, citing irregularities.

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