By Will Englund
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 31, 2011; A09
CAIRO - The Muslim Brotherhood found its first martyr in Egypt's popular uprising Friday, when a teenager named Mustafa Sawi was shot dead in front of the Interior Ministry. But the country's oldest and best-organized opposition group had to take a back seat at his public funeral the next day, as the Muslim Brotherhood insists it is little more than a bit player in the outpouring of resistance to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
"This is on purpose," Mohammed Mahdi Akef, who retired last year as leader of the group at the age of 82, said Sunday. "We want to be part of the fabric of society."
But as Egyptian society begins to weave a whole new cloth, the Muslim Brotherhood, alternately used and demonized by Mubarak over the years, has been slow to contribute. An organization dedicated to the creation of a more thoroughly Islamic Egyptian state, and still technically illegal here, the 83-year-old group has been weakened by a generational divide and overtaken by the protests that broke out with little warning here last week.
The Muslim Brotherhood is still capable of provoking alarm here. Last week, as the protests gathered steam, many of its senior members were rounded up and put in prison.
Individual members have been active in the demonstrations, but like other political groups here the organization has refrained from waving its banners or promoting itself during the protests. At Sawi's funeral procession, which wound through central Tahrir Square on Saturday, there was no visible evidence of his membership.
"The moment is bigger than any individual force or actor," Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Sunday. "The Brothers have been effectively sidelined."
The outpouring of so many different elements of society in the demonstrations has to have taught the Muslim Brotherhood a lesson, he said. "They must realize now that there's no way they represent the majority."
Inspired by the YMCA when it was founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has been under a ban since 1948, and its real size is difficult to gauge. The group was brutally repressed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, it has at times been propped up as a foil - especially for Western audiences - with periodic crackdowns that have sent many of its members to prison.
Akef, sentenced to death in 1954, served 20 years in prison before emerging as a leader of the group.
For most of its existence in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has refrained from violence against the state. It is not the organization of radical jihadists that it is sometimes made out to be. But its caution in dealing with Mubarak has made it appear recently that it is more concerned with protecting itself than with improving the nation.
"If we had led, they would have massacred us," Akef said. "All we want is freedom for all the people. Freedom would give us space for movement."
It would, he said, enable the Muslim Brotherhood to push effectively for more proper Islamic education and training, so Egyptians would be able to "stand up to the American-Zionist project."
The Muslim Brotherhood "is an organization that for years has exercised strategic patience," Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Sunday. "There's no special advantage to being visible right now."
But Egypt has been changing, more rapidly perhaps than the organization understands. Mokhtar Nouh, a defense lawyer, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood - but prison changed him. When he emerged from detention four years ago, he says, he realized with a sudden clarity that the old group had fallen behind the times. "This organization was too slow," he said Sunday while standing with several thousand others in Tahrir Square. "I joined the streets."
In some ways, the Muslim Brotherhood, because of its nationwide reach and reputation, is only the most prominent of an array of political groups that have had to submerge their identities while rushing to catch up with the mostly young protesters on the streets. It will certainly remain a player in Egyptian politics, Bahgat said.
"But suddenly, now, we can think big," Bahgat said. "This is a very plural polity. This is the new reality. And I've never been so exuberant."
The 31-year-old activist said that he understands that politics is politics and that the organization is bound to have a resurgence. The Muslim Brotherhood will be, in his eyes, a potentially potent political force. In the past week, Egypt has at least caught a glimpse of new possibilities.
"I keep trying to savor these moments, because I know they will be the best moments of my life," he said.
The groups running the demonstrations have organized a committee of 10 to deal with the government; the Muslim Brotherhood is included. When its eight regional directors were arrested last week, it chose not to mobilize in their defense so as not to distract from the main goal - the departure of Mubarak.
When Sawi, its martyr, was buried, his funeral came to represent more than the grief of one organization.
"We've been unified under one banner," said Abdel Rahman Fares, an activist and blogger who was at Tahrir Square on Sunday draped in an Egyptian flag. "The funeral became like a funeral march for the regime itself."