The Muslim Brotherhood, the Cairo-based Islamist group that consumes the minds of American neoconservatives but rates hardly a second thought in Egypt, is in many ways like an ancient papyrus roll displayed in an airtight case lest it crumble when exposed to the elements.
The oxygen and light now leavening Egyptian politics is apparently doing just that. On Monday, the Financial Times reported that the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth branch was appealing to group elders for “an affiliated political party based on the values of the Muslim Brotherhood but not strictly religious.” Forming such a group, one youth leader told the FT, “would prove that we are peaceful, want to work in an institutional framework and are seeking to reform society in all its aspects.”
The fragmentation of Egypt’s largest and most influential Islamist movement should surprise no one who has spent time listening to its members. Far from being a monolith, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, as it is known in Arabic, is well scored by demographic and ideological fault lines. Its diversified ranks—young and old, blue-collar and bourgeoisie, worldly and parochial—shared above all else a hatred of the despot who tormented it. Assuming Egypt will reap the bounty of its democratic revolution—and there are indications that the military authority that now controls the nation may obstruct such a harvest—the elimination of Hosni Mubarak could mean the end of the Ikhwan as we know it.
Well before Mohammed Akef, who in spring 2009 became the first of the Ikhwan’s Supreme Guides to step down from office rather than seek another term, the group was showing signs of strain. (Unlike most political institutions in the Arab world, the Brotherhood holds regular ballots, and 80 percent of its leadership body is directly elected.) Pragmatists like Akef had urged Ikhwan members to participate in provincial and national campaigns, and in a 2005 contest they emerged with an impressive 20 percent share of seats in Parliament. In response, Mubarak cracked down bloodily on the group, vindicating the Ikhwan’s conservative Salafi movement, which was appealing for a withdrawal to the mosque.
The election in January 2010 of Akef’s successor, a relative unknown conservative named Mohammed Badie, was regarded as a victory for Akef’s detractors and a setback for the Brotherhood’s youth wing, which the outgoing Supreme Guide had promoted. A year before Badie’s election, a young Ikhwan member named Mohammed Adel told me that his co-generationalists were seizing the initiative, collaborating with secular opposition groups in defiance of the old guard. “You have a lot of young people who want to be in the leadership, but none of them are in the senior ranks,” he said. “We want to take things to the street.”