A growing political force in Egypt

Egypt 2006

By Michael Tackett

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – They were older men, dressed in blue suits and dress shirts and stylish socks, one recounting his days at the University of Southern California, the other his time at the University of Missouri-Rolla. They can deliver a spot-on analysis of why George W. Bush won a second term (the votes of religious conservatives in rural areas) and pose challenging questions about whether the U.S. wants democracy in the Middle East only if it agrees with the winner.

They are the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in 1928 that is officially banned by the Egyptian government, but one whose candidates won nearly 20 percent of the seats in the most recent parliamentary elections. Few outside the government dispute their contention that they would have won far more seats if their voters had not been forcibly stopped at the polls.

No one doubts that the Muslim Brotherhood, which would like to see Egypt transformed into an Islamic state, is a growing political force.

But there is widespread disagreement about the group's overall reach. In an effort to shape Western perception of them, three leaders met with a group of American journalists in their second-floor offices of a nondescript building in downtown Cairo.

Looking at the Muslim Brotherhood opens a window onto the enigmatic narrative of Egyptian politics.

Some believe that the Muslim Brotherhood serves as a convenient foil for President Hosni Mubarak. He can maintain his iron-fisted rule, which has led to growing complaints about crackdowns on dissent, because he can argue that if the U.S. doesn't back him, they will be dealing with the Muslim Brothers.

Others believe that they are a troubling incubator for radical fundamentalism; others still that they are an organized nuisance. You can hear them called the face of Egyptian politics' future or you can hear them called a "mafia."

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was dismissive of the Brotherhood, saying in effect that they were better at gaining publicity than they were at delivering services. He called them "extremists" who were "attempting to hijack the elections" by rounding up people to get them to vote.

Yet some think their support is far greater than the government would have people believe. At a roundtable with students at Cairo University, there was near-universal agreement that the Muslim Brotherhood was an important and positive political force.

"They are strong and they have support all over Egypt," said Arwa Mahmoud, managing editor of islamonline.net, a popular Web site that provides information on Islam in English and Arabic.

She said that if students were planning a demonstration, they could attract 1,000. But if they used the Muslim Brotherhood to get the word out, the crowd might swell to 20,000 because of its superior organizing skills.

"I think it's a force to be embraced," Mahmoud said. "This is where the people feel they belong. There is absolutely no support for" Mubarak's National Democrat Party.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is of some concern in the U.S., particularly with the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, because the Brotherhood promotes the idea of an Islamic state governed by Islamic law.

"You want a prefab democracy," said Mohamed Morsy, a former member of parliament who attended USC and whose children are U.S. citizens. "You are not wanting real democracy."

The Brotherhood challenges the U.S. policy by pointing to President Bush's own religiosity. "We believe that the main reason President Bush [won re-election] was his religious and moral beliefs," said Mohamed Habib, the group's leader. "We agree with that because morals are most important."

The agenda of the Brotherhood is vague, but it is known throughout the country for delivering social services that in some ways exceed what the government provides, particularly among the young and the poor.

And there are those who think that the Brotherhood's success in the election represented more of a protest than a genuine threat to the Mubarak government.

Saad Ibrahim, a professor at the American University of Cairo and a leading democratic activist who has been jailed three times for his political activities, said that because turnout was only about 20 percent in the Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood actually had the support of about 4 percent of Egyptian voters. "That is the real strength of the Muslim Brotherhood," Ibrahim said.

In Egypt, Ibrahim added, "The more you hear, the more you get confused."