Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Get Ready for Big Brotherhood

Long shunted to the margins of political life, the Arab world's oldest Islamist group is about to win big. But not everyone's happy about it.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO – The contrast was telling. By Monday, as polling stations across Egypt's capital brimmed with people waiting to vote in the country's first free elections in decades, the crowds in Tahrir Square, the center of recent clashes and mass rallies, had begun to dwindle. Although the poll results will not be known until January, one thing appears clear: The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist group, is coasting to victory.

All of last week, during occasional lulls in the violence that raged nearby, the square's fringes buzzed with heated debate. Jostling for space with vendors selling corn and koshary, a coma-inducing pasta staple, occasionally darting aside to make space for ambulances carrying the injured from Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the scene of the heaviest fighting, groups of people congregated in clusters to discusses the preferred course and outcome of Egypt's latest revolution.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 23, soon after a group of imams brokered what was to prove a short lived truce between protesters and riot police, a small but animated crowd gathered around Ahmed Bahaa, a 30-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Bahaa, dressed in a button-down shirt and trousers, a speck of a prayer scar barely visible on his forehead, had come to the square to dissuade people from confronting the police. "If we go down to Mohamed Mahmoud, it means we're teasing the military," he explained. An older man immediately jumped in his face. "We can't back down now, they're shooting at people with bullets, people are being killed!" he yelled, shaking with anger. A blue surgical mask -- to protect against the tear gas wafting into the square -- dangled from his chin.

CAIRO – The contrast was telling. By Monday, as polling stations across Egypt’s capital brimmed with people waiting to vote in the country’s first free elections in decades, the crowds in Tahrir Square, the center of recent clashes and mass rallies, had begun to dwindle. Although the poll results will not be known until January, one thing appears clear: The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group, is coasting to victory.

All of last week, during occasional lulls in the violence that raged nearby, the square’s fringes buzzed with heated debate. Jostling for space with vendors selling corn and koshary, a coma-inducing pasta staple, occasionally darting aside to make space for ambulances carrying the injured from Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the scene of the heaviest fighting, groups of people congregated in clusters to discusses the preferred course and outcome of Egypt’s latest revolution.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 23, soon after a group of imams brokered what was to prove a short lived truce between protesters and riot police, a small but animated crowd gathered around Ahmed Bahaa, a 30-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Bahaa, dressed in a button-down shirt and trousers, a speck of a prayer scar barely visible on his forehead, had come to the square to dissuade people from confronting the police. "If we go down to Mohamed Mahmoud, it means we’re teasing the military," he explained. An older man immediately jumped in his face. "We can’t back down now, they’re shooting at people with bullets, people are being killed!" he yelled, shaking with anger. A blue surgical mask — to protect against the tear gas wafting into the square — dangled from his chin.

Bahaa was getting an earful, but at least he was spared the humiliation that befell Mohamed al-Beltagy, a senior member of the Brotherhood and one of the heroes of the Jan. 25 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator of 30 years. When Beltagy tried to put in an appearance, a crowd of protesters unceremoniously evicted him from the square.

"The Brotherhood won’t come here, and we don’t want them to come," said Alaa, a 17-year-old girl wearing a Muslim headscarf, braces, and glasses. "They are part of the military regime," she added, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which began running the country after Mubarak’s fall.

In a matter of days, the Brotherhood had gone from Tahrir vanguard to rearguard to fifth column — at least as far as the protesters were concerned. On Nov. 18, shortly after the military announced its intentions to retain special powers under the country’s new constitution — including the right to intervene in politics and have its budget exempted from parliamentary scrutiny — it was the Brothers who marshaled tens of thousands of people into Tahrir to protest the measures. The very next day, however, after a police crackdown on a small sit-in in the square provoked a series of clashes, the Brotherhood recoiled. As the violence intensified (at last count, the fighting in Cairo and elsewhere had left at least 42 dead and 2,000 wounded), the group’s leadership called on members to stay clear of the square. On Nov. 22, with the new wave of protests in full swing, and with most opposition groups demanding the SCAF disband immediately, the Brothers joined talks with the junta. They walked out with an agreement according to which parliamentary elections would proceed as planned, while presidential elections would be expedited from June 2013 to June 2012. The crowds at Tahrir jeered as the pact was announced.

To Shabaal Ibrahim, 52, an environmental manager at a petroleum company, the Brothers had placed their own interests ahead of the Egyptian people. "They needed the elections as soon as possible so they could win the public assembly," he said. Shabaal was now more certain than ever. "I will not vote for them."

Unlike many political groups, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) did not suspend its campaign for parliament at the height of the protests. At a rally in Zeitoun, a mixed Christian-Muslim neighborhood in northeast Cairo, a local FJP candidate, Rafaat Hamid, defended the Brothers from charges of opportunism. "The Brothers did not go to Tahrir but they support the protests," he told me. (Likewise, he pointed out, the Brotherhood certainly did not remain silent in the face of the violence, issuing several statements condemning the use of force and calling on the SCAF to issue an unequivocal apology to the Egyptian people "for the crimes committed and the violation of their rights.") Hamid insisted that the Brotherhood’s decision not to attend the protest was made with "the public interest in mind." If the group were to turn up en masse, he argued, "there could be violence, and the army would have an excuse to impose martial law."

It wasn’t the first time that the Brothers erred on the side of caution — or taken pains to accommodate the powers that be. In last year’s elections, rather than support a boycott called by Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a key opposition figure, the Brotherhood chose to defend its 20 percent share of parliamentary seats. (It was only when the poll turned out to be thoroughly rigged, confirming ElBaradei’s instincts, that the Brothers withdrew their candidates.) In January, the group came down with a severe case of cold feet before joining the protests that would eventually bring down Mubarak.

As Islam and radicalization expert Alison Pargeter argues in a recent book on the movement, the Brotherhood’s "need to play to several different constituencies simultaneously and its desire to be all things to all men" is as old as the movement itself. If the Brotherhood has always sought to appeal to as broad a base as possible to challenge regimes it considered un-Islamic, Pargeter writes, then it has also not shied from cutting deals with those same regimes. While this may have ensured the movement’s survival, it has alienated parts of its core constituency. Just how many those alienated supporters are — and what they are prepared to do about it — is anyone’s guess.

The Brothers’ willingness to embrace the fruits of what many here see as an unfinished revolution appears to have accelerated the trend. The transformation from a religious movement into a political one has not been easy. In May, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh, a well-known moderate member of the Brotherhood’s inner circle, cut ties with the group after announcing his intention to run for president. About a month later, a group of young members split from the Brothers to found a new group, the Egyptian Current Party. Their intention, according to one of the co-founders, was for the new party "to express the spirit of the revolution."

At a recent event in Istanbul, Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, the grandson of a former Brotherhood supreme leader, hinted at further splits to come. For years, said Houdaiby, who himself left the movement in 2008, pressure from the state had kept the Brotherhood together by pushing it into the realm of identity politics. Now, however, with the collapse of the Mubarak regime and the overwhelming chance that the Brothers will soon find themselves in government, difficult political choices await. To date, what has bound the Brothers together was a set of principles: the acceptance of Islam as an all-encompassing system; the embrace of democracy, though often limited to an acceptance of its procedural components; rejection of political violence; and support for anti-Israel resistance movements like Hamas. Vaguely defined as they are, Houdaiby said, "those principles are incapable of keeping an organization together."

According to Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, it isn’t reasonable to expect mass defections or splits at the current stage. The real test, he says, will arrive when the Brotherhood begins to govern. "Let’s say, hypothetically, that as a governing power in the foreseeable future they’ll have to deal with Israel," Hamid posits. "How do you that without alienating one of your core constituencies?" (The Brotherhood’s platform explicitly calls for respecting the Camp David treaty. Whether most voters are aware of this is another matter.)

Even if the Brotherhood’s recent positions frustrated the people gathered in Tahrir, the group isn’t likely to suffer at the polls, insists Hamid — simply because "there’s no evidence to suggest that most Egyptians supported the protesters." To some extent, the rally I attended in Zeitoun corroborated the claim. The issues that mattered to the local voters, at least judging by the candidates’ speeches and the question-and-answer session that followed, included corruption, health care, unemployment, and lack of security. The protests appeared as an afterthought.

Last Thursday, after the fighting died down, Islam Hamad, a young Brotherhood member from Cairo, sat down with me at a makeshift clinic set up near the metro stop at Tahrir, amid blankets used by protesters treated for minor injuries and tear gas inhalation. Hamad, a Brotherhood member, had come out to the square to support what he saw as the latest, perhaps most important, phase in Egypt’s popular revolution.

Despite the Brotherhood’s boycott of the new protests, he said, there were many young Brothers in Tahrir. "In the past, the leaders gave an order and everyone followed," he said. "Now things are different." He understood why many people had turned against the Brothers. It seems, he said, "as if they care about seats in parliament more than anything else." Still, Hamad is giving them the benefit of the doubt. In the elections, he says, he will vote for the FJP, the Brotherhood’s party. "With time, I’m sure they will change."

Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @p_zalewski.

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