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.
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.
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:
“The Brothers … They want it to be Islamic like Iran and this. But we don’t want it to be like that. We are liberal. That’s the way they think … They have the biggest crowd in here. That’s why they can control it.”
The Brotherhood sensed this tension inside the square and its leaders, particularly the young ones like Abbas, went out of their way to stress publicly that their movement was only part of the democratic uprising sweeping the country.
“This is not the Muslim Brotherhood revolution, this is the Egyptian Brotherhood revolution,” said Abbas, who at this point was still awkward with his slogans and warming up to take a larger leadership role.
A young leader of the Brotherhood
Mohammed Abbas emerged as a young leader of the Muslim Brotherhood through the 18 days of the revolution. And we asked him about Abdel-Rahmans' concerns that the Brotherhood was “taking over.”
He explained that a lot of the youth inside Tahrir Square were getting to know each other for the first time and that misunderstandings were common.
“You know the regime kept us apart. This is one of the best things of these demonstrations is that we have a chance to come together. I will talk with him at some point. He shouldn’t feel that way,” Abbas said, referring to Abdel-Rahman who was sitting nearby and sharing some orange soda with a group of young friends who’d stopped by his tent.
“We do not want to take over. Just the opposite. We only want to be a part of this, not control it,” said Abbas.
Abbas is from Imbaba, an area of Cairo particularly hard hit by a devastating 1992 earthquake, and where the Muslim Brotherhood won the hearts of its residence by helping to rebuild it after years of government neglect. Imbaba was such a stronghold of the Brotherhood and other Islamic movements in the mid-1990s that it was referred to as “The Islamic Republic of Imbaba.”
The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by a school teacher and theologian named Hassan al-Banna. In its origins, it was a religious movement that targeted the British colonial powers that occupied Egypt at that time. Its members numbered in the millions in the 1930s and 1940s. And its early leaders flirted with Nazi ideology. According to some researchers, the Brotherhood printed copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and distributed them in Arabic.
Vehemently anti-Israeli since the state was founded in 1948, the Brotherhood developed international chapters from Palestine to Sudan to Algeria and throughout Europe and eventually in America. In the 1950s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser refused to let them form a political party and jailed and tortured Brotherhood members. Their numbers declined and their influence waned.
Then in the 1970s, President Anwar Sadat eased up on repression, seeing the Brotherhood as a bulwark against communism. That endeared Sadat to the United States and made Egypt an American ally in the Cold War. But the movement split and a harder, more radical element formed more militant groups that openly espoused violence.
One of the splinter groups led by the Egyptian Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri was known as Islamic Jihad. Ultimately, these more militant factions, enraged by Sadat’s signing of a peace treaty with Israel, would assassinate him in 1981 and thus thrust Mubarak, then vice president, into power.
The Muslim Brotherhood made clear that it rejected such violence and has maintained its separate stance as a more moderate Islamist movement ever since. Zawahiri would go onto forge an alliance with Osama bin Laden and become his deputy in Al Qaeda.
But the mainstream leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood would vociferously reject what they see as the warped ideology of Al Qaeda. They quickly and clearly condemned the attacks of Sept. 11. And through the recent decades, they have committed the movement to taking part in the democratic process in Egypt, to the extent that Mubarak actually allowed for one.
Still officially banned as a political organization, they worked underground and fielded candidates as independents. In 2005, after U.S. President George W. Bush exerted pressure on Mubarak to hold fair elections, the Muslim Brotherhood garnered an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament, or about 20 percent of the total. That made it the leading opposition block.
The Mubarak regime responded in the last five years by cracking down severely on the movement. They closed hundreds of Brotherhood schools and clinics, seized the assets of their financial backers and jailed more than 1,200 members and supporters. In the 2010 elections, the Brotherhood’s candidates, still veiled as independents, boycotted rather than suffer defeat in a rigged game.
Brotherhood youth leader Mohammed Abbas, the son of a low-level postal worker, grew up amid this history. And he watched his father die young of hepatitis-C first contracted from bad water and then made fatal by a lack of medical treatment. He blamed his death on the regime’s neglect and indifference to neighborhood’s like Imbaba. He was angry and bitter that he was left to provide for his mother and three sisters through his job in a printing company.
He said the experience radicalized him. An uncle, who had long supported the Muslim Brotherhood, first introduced him to the movement at the age of 15. He has been committed ever since.
Abbas, who became part of the Revolutionary Youth Council that was forged to bring together young leaders from the different opposition camps, explained, “The Muslim Brotherhood does not seek political gains from this revolution, it wants to show to all of Egypt that it will work together with all the different opposition groups to achieve one goal, getting rid of the butcher. We have to remove Mubarak and that is something we all want to happen.”
Bassem Kamel, the Revolutionary Youth Council representative for the Nobel peace prize winning and secular opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei, agreed with Abbas that there is unity.
“We have found that we can work with them. The Muslim Brotherhood youth is very organized. Their strength is their organization, their clear hierarchy. When they get an order, they do it. In our organization it is more messy. Everyone is equal and everyone is a leader and that makes it harder,” said Kamel.
To drive home the point of unity, the Brotherhood’s leadership announced they would not field a presidential candidate in the next round of elections if and when Mubarak was toppled. (And it was only many days after the toppling of Mubarak that they announced their intention to form a political party at some point down the road when a new constitution is written and Egypt’s push toward democracy takes a more clear shape.)
For all 18 days of the revolution, the Brotherhood put forth their trademark image for patience and perseverance and focused on their long-term vision to affect profound change in Egypt. They stayed true to their dream of making the country and indeed all of the Arab world a more Islamic society, one that in the end they believe will accept true Shariah, or Islamic law.
In the run-down headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a senior leader, Essam El-Erian, explained the movement’s broader goals.
“Our goal, most important mission , is to have an Islamic revival in the society, to convince people that you can build a new country, a new era according to your Islamic beliefs… We are not only a political group; we are an Islamic organization. Islam deals with politics, with economics, with social affairs, with solidarity of people, with their education, with all aspects of life.”
We asked Abbas about these larger goals and how he saw them in the context of the dramatic events unfolding in the revolution.
As we walked through the warren of tents in the square and he made his way to a meeting with fellow members of the Revolutionary Youth Council on what would be the final, culminating night of the revolution, Abbas said, “When the Brotherhood was forced to operate underground, it showed that it was leading 20 percent of the people and it was elected to 88 seats in parliament.”
Walking forward as he spoke and pushing through the crowd, he added, “But now we are going to topple this regime and we are going to make history and imagine what we can do in a new Egypt where the movement is allowed to operate in the open to go about its goals. We are very strong going into the future.”
Read more on the Middle East protests.