In this Thursday, May 12, 2011 photo, Sobhi Saleh, center, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former member of parliament, is surrounded by supporters in Cairo, Egypt. Once forced underground, the Brotherhood is likely to be part of Egypt's new government. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood could be unraveling

Egypt’s most powerful political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, may be splintering.

The influence and organizational abilities of the Islamist group have raised fears in the West and among some secular and liberal groups in Egypt that the path to democracy in the country may instead end with an Islamic state. But the historically unified movement, long considered the only viable opposition to Hosni Mubarak, has struggled to adapt to the new political landscape that has emerged since his ouster in February.

Just three months before parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is facing dissension within its ranks, as reformers push for a more open system of choosing leaders and political candidates. The movement’s leadership appeared to be dragged into the mass protests that forced Mubarak from office, and young Brotherhood members who joined the uprising say the organization is still too slow to react to the sentiments of the masses.

Amid the strains, some within the movement who have been calling for change are slowly splitting off from the Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party and forming their own, more­inclusive political parties. The result could split the Brotherhood’s voter base and weaken its representation in the next parliament.

So far, just four new parties are being formed, and Brotherhood members dismiss them as insignificant. But the cracks in the organization’s usually monolithic structure suggest that the movement may be unraveling.

“The splintering shows the strains that the revolution has put on the Brotherhood,” said Elijah Zarwan, an Egypt expert with the International Crisis Group.

The Brotherhood has retaliated against the breakaway forces, and this week it expelled five youth members from the organization for forming a party, according to Islam Lotfy, who said he was among those thrown out. The expulsions were widely reported, but a Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said Wednesday that they were under review and had not been implemented.

Last month, the organization’s leadership expelled Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, a leading reformer and the respected head of the Arab Medical Union, for putting himself forward as a presidential candidate. The Brotherhood has said that it plans to field candidates for 30 to 50 percent of seats in parliament. But, in an apparent acknowledgment of concerns that it could wield too much power in a post-Mubarak Egypt, the movement’s leaders have said that they do not seek to rule the country and will not field a candidate for the nation’s top office.

Lotfy, a 33-year-old lawyer, was part of the youth coalition that helped drive the Egyptian revolution. The young Islamist said his new party, the Egyptian Current, would be more diverse and would promote a democratic government, though he stopped short of describing the party as secular.

He called his expulsion “aggressive” and warned that the Brotherhood would end up losing more support if it isolated itself from the new realities of Egypt. “Maybe the leaders are scared of this new era of freedom because they aren’t used to it,” he said. “They’re used to living under persecution.”

During Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule, the group was officially banned and its members were persecuted and arrested. But the movement was allowed to exist on a tight leash, and in 2005 Brotherhood candidates running as independents won about one-fifth of the seats in parliament.

The organization was late to formally support demonstrations against Mubarak and has been accused of trying to co-opt a revolution that went forward without it. Although the Brotherhood doctrine seeks to create a state governed by the movement’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, the group rejects militant violence to achieve its goals and is considered too mainstream by extremist groups such as al-Qaeda.

“The context changed too fast for them to adapt,” said Ibrahim Houdaiby, an analyst and former Brotherhood member. “They are losing people, but we have to wait and see how that will impact the group at large.”

Already, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has softened its stance on issues such as whether women and Coptic Christians can be candidates for president, with a top official declaring on the group’s Web site that any Egyptian citizen has the right to run for the job. The Brotherhood also announced in June an electoral alliance with one of the country’s oldest liberal and secular parties, al-Wafd, despite their ideological differences.

Since Mubarak’s ouster, the group has not officially participated in any popular demonstrations against the conduct of Egypt’s interim military leadership, prompting charges that the Brotherhood is too close to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That pattern was broken this week, however, with the Brotherhood’s endorsement of a planned protest Friday against the slow pace of change in the country.

Some younger members of the Brotherhood have been striking out on their own since the organization failed to back the early protests against Mubarak. “We are trying to do what we did during the revolution, where we put aside affiliation and ideology and worked in the interest of Egypt,” Lotfy said.

Lotfy said he had been active in the Brotherhood for 15 years and was devastated by the news of his expulsion. He said he should be allowed to remain a member of the broader organization, which he stressed is a social and ideological movement, even if he is pursuing a different political path.

His fledgling party includes Brotherhood members, liberals and others, Lotfy said. As Egypt moves forward, he said, he wants to be able to choose political solutions from different ideologies, be it Marxism, capitalism or Islam.

Estimates of the number of Brotherhood members who have broken away to form new political groups vary, from 200 to 2,000.

Brotherhood officials dismiss the splinter groups as unimportant when compared with the movement’s estimated 600,000 members and millions of supporters across the country, and no one disputes that the Brotherhood’s decades-long head start in organizing makes it Egypt’s most potent political force.

“People have the right to express their opinions freely, but they have commitments with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer and member of the group. Members of the Brotherhood who want to be involved in politics should follow through on this commitment and join the organization’s Freedom and Justice Party, he said.

But Ismail insisted that the fissures would not affect the Brotherhood’s popular base. “Not one centimeter,” he said.

Special correspondent Sulafeh Munzir al-Shami contributed to this report.