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.”
So they did. It was the participation of the Brotherhood’s young cadres that lent critical mass to the demonstrations that toppled Mubarak. Conspicuously absent in the confrontation was the Ikhwan’s conservative wing, now a static player in a profoundly ecumenical movement radiating across the Arab world.
Ahmed Salah is a young dissident and secularist who has spent years in Egypt’s political opposition. (In the revolution’s formative hours in Tahrir Square, he was arrested by security agents, beaten and released back into the crowd, only to take a rubber bullet it the head three days later.) On Thursday, he told me by phone that the Muslim Brotherhood had been a marginal player in the upheaval except for its young leaders, who were exploiting a leadership vacuum for the sake of aggrandizing power. The real menace to the revolution, he said, was the military council that has installed itself as a provisional government. Rather than convening talks with a wide array of opposition leaders, Salah told me, it is soft-stalling secularists’ demand for constitutional reform while “negotiating” with an inchoate opposition that includes members of the Ikhwan’s youth branch. (The Financial Times seemed to corroborate Salah’s account, reporting in its Wednesday edition that some thirty human rights groups have criticized the military for excluding secular groups from the constitutional reform panel, which they said was dominated “either by Islamists or legal experts who had helped draw up laws that restricted democracy under Hosni Mubarak.”)
The implication is that Brotherhood upstarts will barter away the soul of the revolution in return for a slice of power in the new regime, in which the generals preserve de facto, if not de jure, control of the country. Such a deal would be similar to the one their fathers kept with Mubarak—accommodation for the sake of autonomy, suggesting what may be a cross-generational fear of having to compete with secularists in a free marketplace of ideas.
“This is a crucial and worrisome time for the movement,” Salah said.
Ambition, guile and low cunning are intrinsic to all political insurgencies. If the peaceful revolt that saw off one dictatorship in Egypt is to be subverted by a new one, the Muslim Brotherhood, with a new generation at the helm, will adapt and survive. If, however, the Egyptian people prevail and the generals are turfed out to the barracks, that same cadre of young Ikhwan leaders will joust for power as one political constituency among many. Either way, Egypt’s most powerful Islamist group has vacated its display case.