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SPECIAL REPORT: The Brotherhood’s role in Egypt's revolution.
How should the world engage with this political player?

Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Part 1

Special report: The Brotherhood’s role in Egypt's revolution.

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CAIRO, Egypt — The historic events in Cairo's Tahrir Square were sparked by largely secular Egyptian youth who came together through social networking on Facebook.

Inspired by Tunisia, these young people lit a virtual brush fire on Jan. 25.

But according to Egyptian analysts and many young leaders of the revolution, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that quietly sustained the real fires of protest until they engulfed Egypt in an all-out revolution that would topple the corrupt and brutal 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak.

The question now looms: What role will the Muslim Brotherhood — by far the largest and most-organized opposition group in Egypt — play in shaping the country's future? And how might the movement’s international chapters contribute as protests spread to Jordan, Algeria, Libya and elsewhere?

Through two weeks of reporting in Tahrir Square and inside the Muslim Brotherhood, Frontline journeyed behind the lines with GlobalPost to gain rare access inside the Brotherhood’s largely invisible but pivotal role in the Egyptian revolution.



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The Muslim Brotherhood’s old guard was at first dismissive about the protest movement and admitted it was slow to listen to its youth wing about a digital-age revolution taking shape.

But as the protest marches grew and street violence escalated, the Brotherhood’s youth convinced the lumbering giant of a movement to awaken and to step forward with its 600,000 members and its vast organizing skills.

Even as it entered the fray, the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed movement that for decades had learned to operate in the shadows, was intent on hiding its role in the 18 days of the Egyptian revolution.

Turning point

On Friday, Feb. 4, as the protests picked up in size and intensity, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were streaming into the square from all directions.

To avoid violent clashes brought on by Mubarak supporters spoiling for a fight, the Muslim Brotherhood established a series of checkpoints designed to keep everything under control.

The movement developed a quietly assertive role in organizing security inside the square. And it provided the muscle on the frontlines in case there were any clashes with Mubarak supporters.

Mohamed Abbas, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth movement and a leader in the square who worked with secular counterparts in the early planning before Jan. 25, saw a young man flashing his pocket Koran with the Muslim Brotherhood symbol of two crossed swords before a FRONTLINE camera.

Abbas gently pushed the young man’s arm down and said, “For God’s sake, don’t hold up your Koran. Hold up an Egyptian flag. For God’s sake. That’s not for the media.”

Later Abbas explained the confrontation, saying in halting English, “Egyptians don’t want to make this revolution into a Muslim Brotherhood show.”

He explained that he told the young brother, “Don’t show the ideology to the press because this is so bad for this revolution.”

Even at this point more than half way into the revolution, the brothers saw no gain – for the country or their own movement – in allowing Mubarak to paint the surging protests as inspired by the Brotherhood.

Their self-stated goal was to avoid confrontation and to execute a plan to keep the square occupied. They brought food in across the barbed wire. They strung plastic sheeting for tents. They printed huge banners depicting the martyrs who’d been killed by the police and loyal thugs of the Mubarak regime. They distributed wool blankets and set up a first aid clinic. Significantly, they also set up the first microphone and speaker tower, thus controlling the message in the square. They were doing all this without any public display that it was the Muslim Brotherhood.

"They're taking over"

But to some of the young protesters, their pervasive role was changing the revolution.

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a 21-year-old law student, who answered the first Jan. 25 call from Facebook to come to Tahrir Square, felt the Brotherhood was “taking over.”

He is from an affluent and Westernized part of Cairo. His tie-dye shirt and expensive jeans made him stand apart from the young Muslim Brotherhood crowd, who wore the cheap knock-offs of 1980s Western styles sold in street bazaars in poorer Cairo neighborhoods such as Imbaba and Shobra, from where many of them hail.

Mohamed Abbas, 26, the young Muslim Brotherhood leader who had shown us around the square and offered a glimpse of how they controlled it, was an example of this more working class crowd.

While I spoke with Abdel-Rahman, who described himself as devoutly secular, Mohamed Abbas was praying nearby on a piece of cardboard that he used as a prayer rug.

The two youths were bookends of the same revolution.

Speaking from inside the quiet of a sturdy Coleman tent, Abdel-Rahman looked out on a small army of Muslim Brotherhood members lying all around him in their make-shift tents of plastic sheeting as some prayed, some read pocket Korans and others just talked and sipped tea from plastic cups.

Abdel-Rahman whispered to me as he exhaled on a cigarette, “I am afraid.”

He was asked what he was afraid of:

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