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Egypt's unknown element

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

CAIRO

For much of the past 30 years, the shadowy Muslim Brotherhood was almost a raison d'etre for the regime of President Hosni Mubarak: Egypt needed a strong authoritarian government, the argument went, or it would be hijacked by Islamic radicals. That bugaboo went out the window with Mubarak's ouster this month.

It's easy now, in the afterglow of the revolution that toppled Mubarak, to believe that such warnings were self-serving nonsense. The "Ikhwan," as the Brotherhood is known here, is out of the closet and doesn't look so scary. Its young militants have linked arms with secular protesters; its leaders talk of competing with other parties in a democratic Egypt; the movement actually seems to be fracturing a bit, now that it's out in the sunlight.

The Egyptian people are making a bet that the Brotherhood won't wreck their new experiment in democracy. But as is always the case with real political change, it's impossible to be sure. The new Egypt will need a strong constitution to protect human rights, and a strong army to back it up. Even with these checks, there will always be a risk that the country could veer toward a dangerous Islamic radicalism.

It was unnerving to see mass prayers in Tahrir Square at a "Victory March" on Friday, an image that evokes Tehran more than Cairo. But the crowd was as nationalistic as it was religious, and as soon as the Muslim prayers ended, Egyptian flags began to wave.

To get a sense of the Brotherhood's power and intentions, I met with several of its leaders and visited a Cairo slum where militants might have a foothold. What I found was reassuring. The leaders talk a conciliatory line; more important, they don't seem menacing out in the streets. Like the rest of Egypt, the Brotherhood's members seem to be reaching for a more modern identity.

But a caution: The rhetoric of accommodation could change. Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, one of the group's more moderate members, warned me that if democracy fails, "silent cells may rise again, and we may suffer again from violence." He said that this jihadist resurgence would be "bad for Egypt and the world," and he's certainly right - but the point is that it's not an impossibility.

Essam el-Erian, the group's spokesman, has an office on the banks of the Nile with a notice on the door that says: "Muslim Brotherhood." He's hardly an underground figure, in other words. His statements are mostly soothing: He says that the group won't run a candidate for president and isn't seeking a majority in parliament; he predicts that it will probably get 30 to 35 percent of the votes; he says that the Brotherhood will abide by Egypt's international agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel.

El-Erian knows that his world has been changed by the Tahrir Square revolution that shattered its nemesis, the Mubarak regime. The official Brotherhood leadership was actually slow to understand the importance of the protest, and el-Erian sounds a bit defensive in explaining why they were late to the revolution: "We're busy in other business. To stay and protest in Tahrir is not useful to us."

The youth members of the Brotherhood got it, however, and they defied their elders and went to Tahrir. The moderate leader Abou el-Fotouh says that the kids were right to ignore the leadership. There is a "calcified mind in Egypt," he says, apparently including some of his colleagues.

Abou el-Fotouh says that the Brotherhood should stay out of party politics. Its support would be only 20 to 25 percent, he predicts, and he would prefer to form a new party that would be like the ruling AKP in Turkey. This party should even reach out to other sects, he says, recognizing that "Egyptian civilization was built by Muslims and Coptics."

Listening to these moderate Muslim brothers, you want to get a reality check out on the streets. A serious investigation would take months, but I was able to visit a poor neighborhood called Ezbet Khairallah in the hills south of downtown Cairo. This is a shantytown of unpaved streets, without sewers or water, inhabited by squatters who moved from Upper Egypt. The women all wear prim head scarves and robes.

The slum is a breeding ground for Muslim militants, you might think. But my guide, an activist named Yasmina Abou Youssef who runs a neighborhood program here called Tawasol, said that few people seem connected to the Brotherhood. She introduced me to three veiled women who said that the Ikhwan had little influence.

It's a roll of the dice, creating a fully democratic Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood could become a dominant force. But from what a visitor can see and hear, it's a wager the Egyptian people are determined to make - and one that deserves American support.


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