By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 12:23 AM
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT - Hamdi Hassan, a senior member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood party, was jailed by Egyptian authorities Jan. 28 during the tensest days of anti-government protests in this coastal city.
But Hassan walked out of jail two days later after protesters commandeered the facility and freed all the inmates. By this weekend, the 51-year-old physician sounded exultant as he held court in a main square, mobbed by his supporters in what has long been a Brotherhood stronghold.
"This is a defining and historic moment because Egyptians from all walks of life are finally free," Hassan said. He made clear that he had no fear of being arrested again, even as charred police vehicles in the background offered evidence of the turmoil that spread from Cairo to Alexandria at the height of the violence.
Hassan's own turnabout reflects a reversal that has left the Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic party, poised for the first time to claim a real stake in Egyptian politics in whatever follows three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.
Officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood has long been the target of vicious government crackdowns. But as the oldest, largest and best-organized group in Egypt, the Brotherhood could conceivably become the largest bloc in parliament whenever new elections are held.
Though it was not a driving force behind the demonstrations that began Jan. 25 and grew into a popular uprising, the Brotherhood has wasted no time setting the groundwork for a political resurgence. Its leaders have now claimed their place among those who met Sunday with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, to discuss constitutional reforms and a transition plan.
The development has left some of the more liberal, secular protesters visibly unnerved.
Among those looking on with scorn as Hassan was hailed by the crowd Sunday was a 30-year-old Egyptian who would give his name only as Amr, saying that he needed to protect himself from retribution because he said he had thrown stones and helped set police cars on fire during the recent rioting.
Although he is Muslim, Amr said he has no affinity for the Brotherhood and regards the group as opportunists.
"Initially, it was a battle between rebels and a dictator," Amr said. "Now they have stripped us of our revolution and are going to make a deal with the government."
Some members of the Brotherhood have long aspired to transform Egypt into an Islamic state. But the message that Hassan was delivering Sunday was more moderate, reflecting the group's vow to cooperate with secular and more-moderate Islamic politicians when Mubarak's regime ends.
"One of our demands is free and fair elections that really demonstrate the will of the Egyptian people," Hassan said.
Just how much power the Brotherhood could attain has been on the minds of U.S. officials in recent days as they have calibrated their policy on transition in Egypt. Israeli leaders and analysts have warned that the Brotherhood could hijack the reformist agenda and emerge as a major force that could seek to undermine the long peace between Egypt and Israel.
In a television interview Sunday, President Obama played down the threat that an empowered Brotherhood could pose to U.S. interests.
"They are well organized and there are strains of their ideology that are against the U.S., there's no doubt about it," Obama said in an interview with Fox News. But he noted that many Egyptians are secular and do not support the Brotherhood. "It's important for us not to say that our only two options are either the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed people."
The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 to promote Islamic values. It became politically influential in Egypt the following decade as it sought to end British colonial rule. Since Egypt's independence in 1948, a succession of Egyptian rulers have outlawed and suppressed the group.
Mubarak's government banned it as a party but allowed its members to run for office as independents. When leaders in the West prodded Mubarak to allow greater democratic freedoms, he repeatedly warned that doing so would only empower the likes of the Brotherhood.
In 2005, Brotherhood members won 88 seats in parliament, about 20 percent, a record showing for the group, though one that was largely symbolic given the weakness of Egypt's legislature. But in the latest parliamentary elections, in November, the Brotherhood was shut out in a contest that was blatantly rigged by the ruling pary, an outcome that stripped the group of its clout and left leaders feeling demoralized.
The demonstrations that began in Cairo on Jan. 25 were led primarily by liberal, secular Egyptians buoyed by the Tunisians' success in ousting their iron-fisted leader. Still, members of the Brotherhood were among those quickly taken into custody as the demonstrations gathered steam.
Hassan, an ear, nose and throat doctor, was detained at 2 a.m. Jan. 28. By the time he was freed by fellow protesters on Jan. 30, the Alexandria he returned to was almost unrecognizable.
The protests had spread to Alexandria, where protesters clashed with riot policemen and defaced buildings along the shoreline with vitriolic anti-Mubarak graffiti. Messages denouncing the president and his ruling party were also inscribed on burned police personnel carriers, one of which was marked with the Star of David.
The army has been deployed to the streets, with tanks still posted along the city's main road, which straddles the coast. The tanks also remain positioned outside Mubarak's castle-like vacation home on the waterfront, but scattered protests have continued in recent days.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb and correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem contributed to this report.