When Egypt’s autocratic regime collapsed early last year amid an unstoppable wave of protest, Sherif Mansour leaped at the chance to help promote and shape a nascent democracy in his Muslim-majority homeland. Mansour, who works at the District-based human rights group Freedom House, traveled to Cairo, applied for a government permit, opened an office and hired local staff.
But in December, the new Freedom House branch was forcibly shut down by Egypt’s interim government, along with 16 other international nonprofits, and its staff was charged with the crime of running an illegal foreign operation. Ever since, Mansour has watched with growing concern as conservative Islamist groups capture more and more of the political space that burst open with the Arab spring.
“I know what a stolen revolution looks like,” said Mansour, 32, whose wife’s family is from Shiite-ruled Iran, and whose father was forced to flee Egypt a decade ago for his moderate Muslim teachings. “The liberals in Iran made so many sacrifices for their revolution, and the Islamists stole it,” he said. “I see signs of that happening in Egypt. We need to keep fighting to make sure it doesn’t.”
But lately, things have gotten more complicated and nuanced in Egypt’s fast-changing political scene. The Muslim Brotherhood, a once-banned extremist Sunni movement, recently won nearly half the seats in Parliament and has adopted a new, democratic vocabulary. Last week the group announced it was running a candidate for president, and this week it sent a delegation to Washington, where it has been presenting a moderate-sounding agenda to U.S. officials, journalists and academics.
Among the Washington region’s Egyptian Americans, this flurry of unexpected moves by Egypt’s most influential Islamist group has aroused a mixture of suspicion and hope. The well-educated community includes many democracy activists, such as Mansour, as well as several thousand Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt that has long been persecuted by both dictatorial regimes and Islamic extremists.
“People here in D.C. have a lot of questions and concerns — about women, about minority rights, about how the new constitution will be written. I hope they will provide some good answers,” said Mohammed el Menshawy, an Egyptian American scholar at the Middle East Institute. “It was easy for them to say Islam is the solution when they were in the opposition. Now they will have to find solutions for health care, jobs, education, and speak the language of the globalized world.”
Many Egyptian immigrants are deeply skeptical of the Brotherhood’s apparent transformation, embodied by its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party. These doubters are convinced that the group, long known for its secrecy, discipline and iron commitment to Islamic rule, is simply changing its stripes because it sees a chance to win power at the polls amid growing competition from other forces. Presidential elections in Egypt are expected in June.
Members of the area’s Coptic community are among the most suspicious, in part because their community in Egypt has been ostracized for so long. They say such harassment has intensified as political unrest unleashed ugly rivalries among a gamut of forces — religious and secular, military and civilian. On New Year’s Eve 2011, a Coptic church service in Egypt was firebombed, killing 21.
“The new leaders of the Brotherhood are shrewd, pragmatic and slimy,” said Halim Meawad, a retired diplomat in Northern Virginia and co-founder of the Coptic Solidarity movement here. He warned that it would be a mistake for American officials to buy into the Brotherhood’s purported political reinvention. “They are not exactly in love with Washington,” he said, “but they want to drum up any support they can get, even from their enemies.”
Nermien Riad, who runs an educational charity called Coptic Orphans in Fairfax, was more circumspect. Like Freedom House and 16 other nonprofits, her group’s office in Cairo was raided in December and she was later summoned there to face prosecution for operating an illegal foreign agency. Now her staff has been confined to teaching from private homes, but Riad said she is determined to stay in business.
“This has shaken civil society to the core,” Riad said. “Everyone is looking over their shoulder. For the Copts, there is no clear future. The Facebook generation spurred the revolution, but they may have handed it over to the Islamists without meaning to. We will face a lot more difficulties ahead, but we will get through,” she added. “We have been persecuted for 2000 years. This is just another wave.”
In a packed public forum Wednesday at Georgetown University, members of the Brotherhood delegation insisted that they seek to help build a “new Egypt” based on democracy, freedom, equality and justice. While stressing their devotion to Islamic principles, they distanced themselves from the more radical Salafist parties in Egypt, which advocate full sharia rule, and said they hope to establish friendly relations with the United States.
A series of questioners challenged these assertions. Several Copts in the audience asked about the persecution of Christians and pointed out that the Brotherhood had also once called for an Islamic state. But Abdul Dardery, a newly elected legislator from Luxor in the delegation, pushed back. He noted that the deputy head of their party is a Christian, and he vowed, “I tell you all now, if someone wants to build a new church in Luxor, I will help them build it.”
Another event planned for the group in Washington on Tuesday was canceled at the last minute, and the delegation’s explanation differed sharply from that of the sponsors, a national Muslim American organization. The Brotherhood visitors said there had been a misunderstanding and scheduling conflict, but the hosts complained that the delegation had demanded to approve or reject who would attend.
“We want to have an open conversation. We did not feel comfortable with their demands to vet the attendance list,” said Haris Tarin, District chapter president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. “This group is in the vanguard of a first-ever experiment with Islam and government, and we are extremely concerned over how it will play out. To be honest, a lot of us are very skeptical,” Tarin said. “If it goes sour, it will have a major impact on Muslims in America and all over the world.”
For Mansour, 32, the political rise of the Brotherhood is a confusing new twist in a long saga of family activism, repression, exile and repeatedly dashed hopes. His father, Ahmed Subhy Mansour, was once a prominent scholar in Egypt who promoted a modern, liberal version of Islam. Forced to flee into exile, he was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2001 and now preaches via the Internet from his home in Northern Virginia.
Since the closure of Freedom House’s office in Cairo, Mansour has intently monitored the uncertain course of post-revolutionary Egypt from afar, though last week he took off a day to celebrate becoming an American citizen. His instinct is not to trust the new face of the Brotherhood, but he is glad to see its leaders — once radicalized under dictatorship — being exposed to America.
“This visit is an attempt to do propaganda, but I hope it can also change some of the misconceptions they have about us,” Mansour said. “They need to learn about candidate financing, about the role of NGOs, about how an independent judiciary works. Maybe they will open their eyes and see how democratic society really functions.”