Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood faces prospect of democracy amid internal discord

February 21, 2011

CAIRO - With President Hosni Mubarak gone, the Muslim Brotherhood is finding the prospect of democracy here a mixed blessing.

After decades of fighting for the right to participate openly in politics, Egypt's largest opposition movement soon will face competition from emerging political factions, led by tech-savvy young Egyptians, as the country gears up for what could be its first fair election.

The Islamist group also is facing internal discord, with a handful of young members breaking away. Some say they disapprove of its rigid top-down leadership structure and its politics.

The organization, which has social and political wings, has the support of an estimated 20 percent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population. Until now it has been the only counterweight to Mubarak's ruling party.

"In light of the oppression of Mubarak, the group was cohesive, one body," said Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a former member and Egyptian journalist who writes about Islamic politics. "Now there is freedom. Many ideas will come to the surface and break some of that cohesion."

Secular Egyptians and many in the West view the Brotherhood warily because it seeks to deepen the role of Islam in people's lives. Deeply religious Egyptians, meanwhile, view it as too liberal.

The foray of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups into mainstream politics, and the competition among them, is certain to stoke debate about the intersection between religion and governance in a country that has been ruled in a secular way for decades.

Since Mubarak's ouster, the Brotherhood has offered few signs that it aspires to transform Egypt into a repressive Islamic state. The group bills itself as a moderate movement that seeks to broaden the appeal of Islam from the ground up. It also has long lobbied for a democratic system that ensures freedom of expression and term limits.

Brotherhood leaders say that they will not field a candidate for the presidency this year, and that they intend to compete for no more than a quarter of the seats in the next parliament.

"It's not our aim to take power, it is just to participate," said Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a prominent member of the Brotherhood who is regarded as progressive.

Members and political analysts say the Brotherhood is deliberately keeping a low profile because its leaders are concerned that showing more ambition could backfire by stirring fear in the West and among secular Egyptians.

"You don't know if what they say is what they want, and that's the big concern," a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to voice an emerging concern.

The opening of Egyptian politics is bringing to the fore long-standing rifts among conservative and progressive factions within the Brotherhood. Women and young members for years have lobbied for more prominent roles within the organization.

Until now, those who left the group found it nearly impossible to create new political organizations because Mubarak's government crushed emerging opposition movements.

In the past, only the Brotherhood and Mubarak's National Democratic Party were able to turn out voters, said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

"If there are free and fair elections, we can expect broader voter turnout, and the Brotherhood could lose out," Zarwan said.

The Brotherhood got 88 seats in parliament in the 2005 election, a record showing. It secured none in last fall's parliamentary vote, which the NDP rigged.

In a sign of how Egypt's political landscape is opening, on Saturday, an Egyptian court granted a license to the moderate Islamic movement al-Wasat al-Jadid to establish a party.

The movement, which bills itself as an inclusive group of Islamists, liberals and nationalists, has been trying to establish itself as a party for more than a decade. Because several of its leaders are former Brotherhood members, it is likely to attract voters who in the past would have supported Brotherhood candidates.

"We need at least a year to give a chance to other groups to form, and this will create a balance," said Abu Elela Mady, chairman of the group. "We need many groups that are secular, liberal and religious."

The Brotherhood's leaders were late to endorse the wave of anti-government demonstrations that forced Mubarak to resign Feb 11. But they were quick to hold talks with representatives of Mubarak's embattled regime days before it fell, which angered several of the young activists spearheading the revolt.

"This is an indication that the young people have more awareness than the old guard in the movement," Mahmoud, 31, said. "The Brotherhood always advocated reform, not full change. They didn't expect the revolution, and they were afraid of direct clashes that would lead to mass arrests."

Brotherhood leaders bristle at being labeled fundamentalists. But some of its leaders have supported controversial positions. When the Brotherhood had dozens of lawmakers in parliament, some of them defended female circumcision and the banning of books that they felt depicted Egyptians as deviants.

Whether the movement benefits or suffers from the democratization of Egypt will depend on people like Heba Shahinaz Abd el-Salam.

The 31-year-old documentary filmmaker has been a supporter of the Brotherhood since she was 17. She says she was attracted to the group because she saw it as the only entity promoting social change in Egyptian society. She felt the group espoused "moderate Islamic thinking," and represented the only hope for political change in a country run as an oligarchy.

A day after throngs began protesting in Cairo on Jan. 25, she joined demonstrations in Tahrir Square, where she was among the protesters who camped out for several nights. Ordinarily, she would have waited for the Brotherhood's blessing before participating.

"But the idea of riding the wave didn't occur to them until they realized the government was afraid," Salam said.

In recent days, Salam said, young Brotherhood supporters are split over whether to back the group's old guard, led by male elders who sit on its "guidance council." The alternative, she said, is an emerging "young generation that believes the leadership must be dismantled."

For her, one of the crucial questions is whether the Brotherhood will give women more prominent roles.

Leaders in the movement stressed in interviews that going forward the group is committed to raising the profile of women and young members.

During his rule, Mubarak kept the Brotherhood on a tight leash, using the perceived threat it posed to fend off pressure from the United States and others in the West who called for democratic reform.

Unlike other Islamist political groups in the region, such as Iraq's Sadr movement and Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Brotherhood in recent decades has rejected taking up arms to further its objectives.

The Brotherhood has been banned and oppressed by the state almost without interruption since it emerged as a movement in 1928. It found its political voice opposing British colonial rule in the ensuing decade and has drawn its considerable strength and popular support by providing social services to Egypt's poor in a nation where wealth is inequitably distributed.

Mohammed Hekal, 26, an industrial engineer who was once a Brotherhood leader in university student circles, left the group shortly before the revolution because he deemed it too dogmatic.

At the time, forming a new political party was not an option. Now, he said, he would like to establish one along the lines of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which includes Islamists, nationalists and social conservatives.

"Egypt should and will need different parties with Islamic bases that span from the left to the right," he said. "I'm left of the Brotherhood."

londonoe@washpost.comfadell@washpost.com Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.

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