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