CAIRO, Egypt — Inside the traffic circle that is the spiraling center of Egypt’s protest movement, there is an organizational structure that says a lot about who will lead the new Egypt and what style they might bring to the task.
First, all roads that lead to the traffic circle are flanked by army tanks and troops, making it very clear that it's the army that is truly in charge in these uncertain days in Egypt. Hard to argue with a tank.
But after the army control posts, it’s largely the Muslim Brotherhood that is bringing its organizational acumen to sustaining the demonstrations. And they do it with a calculated and well-rehearsed humility.
The Brotherhood are providing the vast majority of volunteers who’ve been manning several layers of informal checkpoints where these men, check I.D. cards and search bags while smiling and bantering with their fellow Egyptians.
And just past the checkpoints on the sidewalks are still more Brotherhood volunteers, many with thick beards and calluses on their foreheads from prostrating in prayer, chanting slogans and shouting “Welcome to Free Egypt!”
A bit further in there are tables where Brotherhood youth serve hot tea to demonstrators as they go deeper into Tahrir (or Liberation) Square, which was still packed yesterday with tens of thousands of demonstrators.
Leaders of the Brotherhood, which has been outlawed in Egypt but has thrived as an underground movement for decades, adamantly deny this leading role at the demonstrations. Many of the volunteers, when asked if they are Brotherhood, just smile and wink and say they are “Egyptian Brotherhood.”
This is a classic example of the Brotherhood’s disciplined and self-effacing style of governing. They see themselves as a social-service network more than a political machine. The reality is they are both.
The Brotherhood is intent on keeping a low profile in these demonstrations.
“It’s true we have a lot of organizational skills, but that doesn’t mean we are the organizers of this whole movement,” said Mohamed Abbas, 26, a Brotherhood supporter who is also a member of the Coalition of Egypt’s Revolutionary Youth, which represents six different opposition groups.
These other more secular opposition movements have lots of supporters in the square as well. And many of them are also volunteering, picking up trash and staffing an emergency medical clinic. The opposition groups are working together, but only one of them has the grass-roots organizing experience that comes shining through.
The Brotherhood has had a reputation for humility since they helped the poorer districts of Cairo recover from the devastating 1992 earthquake. They've kept up medical clinics and day-care centers in working-class cities and towns across Egypt.
Mubarak has painted the Brotherhood as a fearful Islamic militant group largely, analysts say, because the regime understood their potential for wide political appeal. To keep the movement off guard, the regime has repeatedly cracked down on their activities, according to Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow from the Brookings Institution, who has done extensive research on the Brotherhood.
“The regime got very tough on them in the last five years, arresting members, freezing their assets and closing businesses that paid them a form of tax and they really went after their social service realm,” said Hamid.
“Now after all those years of struggling, this is their moment if they want it. The question is still whether they are really going to seize it or not,” he added.
The Brotherhood is used to trying to stay off the radar, and they seem to like it that way. Youth leader Abbas insists that it is more than just a matter of style, and that the demonstrations are truly bigger than any one movement.
“This movement came from all the people of Egypt, not just the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Abbas.
What Abbas says is indeed the case. These demonstrations erupted as a spontaneous movement sparked by young people linked by Facebook and Twitter who were inspired by the uprising in Tunisia against the dictator there.
But as the demonstrations in Egypt entered their 14th day, it was becoming increasingly clear that the square is largely organized by the small army of Brotherhood volunteers.
Their newly ascendant role in Egypt’s politics was made clear Sunday when their leadership was invited to speak with Vice President Omar Suleiman, a historic recognition of their movement.
While U.S. President Barack Obama said today that the talks were going well, Brotherhood representatives have threatened to quit the process if their demands aren't met.
Essam al-Arian, a senior Brotherhood member, said Sunday at a press conference that ending the political crisis hinged on Mubarak.
"If the regime does not move quickly to accept the people's demands that Mubarak step down then we will end this dialogue," Arian said.
The Brotherhood is officially banned, and their presence at the talks would have been unthinkable before the uprising.
Though not allowed to openly campaign, the Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928, has long been a political force in Egypt. In 2005, the movement surged forward in the flawed but relatively free parliamentary elections that Mubarak held after great pressure from the United States.
The Muslim Brotherhood candidates ran as independents and won 20 percent of the seats in parliament. More recently, in the fall of 2010, they suffered some setbacks. But overall, the party is strong and poised to take a leadership role in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
In an interview at the party’s Council of Ministers’ office in Heliopolis, a senior Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Mursi, professed the movement’s concern that the demonstration not be seen as their event.
“We the Muslim Brotherhood are a part of the people. The people are protesting and the Brotherhood is there with them. We are not alone in our presence at Tahrir Square and we don’t control it,” Mursi said.
Mursi was the Brotherhood leader who over the weekend attended talks with Suleiman along with some 40 other opposition leaders. Suleiman, the former head of intelligence, has long been the nemesis of the Brotherhood and for him to to invite a leader of the outlawed movement into the halls of power was a moment of sweet justice for the Brotherhood, and presumably a bitter pill for Suleiman.
But accepting the invitation to dialogue with the Mubarak-appointed vice president is controversial among the Brotherhood rank and file. Some saw it as a sell out, and the issue was widely discussed inside Tahrir Square on the day after their historic acceptance into the halls of power.
Mursi was a bit defensive about it, saying, “This is only a first step. It doesn’t mean we are hijacking the movement of the people in the square. The square is a big symbol that we all own our own destiny and control our own affairs … But we also need to calm this down and that is why we accepted to enter into the dialogue with the government.”
The Brotherhood is a disciplined movement, which numbers in the millions, and it is not easy to find any one offering public dissent. But there were some voices that expressed concern about the move.
Abdul Rahman Ayyash, a Brotherhood supporter who is also a well-known blogger, said he did not understand why the leadership made the decision to talk with the government when it could be perceived as offering the government legitimacy.
“We shouldn’t be asking them to do us any favors and we shouldn’t be offering to do any favors for them,” said Ayyash, referring to the Mubarak regime. “We should just be demanding that Mubarak leave and that he leave now.”