Throughout Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s many years in office, his most consistent argument for continued rule has been the warning that, should he leave, Egypt will fall into chaos at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is an Islamist political movement that was founded more than 80 years ago in Egypt and whose branches are now among the most powerful opposition groups in several Arab countries. It is formally banned but unofficially tolerated in Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood candidates (running as independents due to the movement’s illegality) won 88 seats in the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, about 20 per cent of the total.
“Mubarak is a classic Egyptian secularist who hates religious extremism and interference in politics,” reports an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. “The Muslim Brothers represent the worst, as they challenge not only Mubarak’s power, but his view of Egyptian interests.” Another leaked American cable reports Mubarak condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as “dangerous” and duplicitous.
It was no surprise, then, that when a popular uprising calling for Mubarak to resign engulfed Cairo and other Egyptian cities, the president blamed the Muslim Brotherhood—despite the fact that the movement had little visible presence during the early days of mass demonstrations. Blaming the Brotherhood is a refrain Mubarak has repeated for decades. And it’s one that resonates in America, where successive presidents sympathized with his stand against Islamic fundamentalism and rewarded the stability he has imposed with more aid money than any other country but Israel receives.
But now the Muslim Brotherhood’s fortunes in Egypt appear to be changing. It has gradually increased its presence among protesters in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And on Sunday, its members were among the opposition leaders invited to meet with Mubarak’s vice-president, Omar Suleiman. Such official recognition suggests the Muslim Brotherhood is stepping away from the political wilderness and will play a more prominent role in Egypt’s future. For better or for worse, Mubarak’s bluff has been called.
Those warning about the dangers of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can find plenty of evidence for their concern among the group’s often conflicting public statements.
“Islam is the solution” is the movement’s slogan. A draft political platform, published in 2007, decreed that women and non-Muslims should be excluded from senior positions in the sort of Islamic state the Brotherhood wishes to create. (Coptic Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population.) But Muhammad Mahdi Akef, “supreme guide,” or chairman, of the movement at the time the draft platform was composed, said such decisions were binding only on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, adding: “The ballot boxes will decide.”
The movement’s current chairman, Muhammad Badi, has defended jihad to “make God’s word supreme,” and pledged hostility to Jews and Israelis: “We will continue to raise the banner of jihad—two swords and a Koran—as long as the Zionists raise their flag, with two blue stripes to represent their so-called state from the Nile to the Euphrates. And the Brotherhood will continue to view the Jews and Zionists as their first and foremost enemies.” But Rashad al-Bayoumi, a leading Muslim Brother, this month told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that, should a provisional government replace Mubarak, “there is no need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel.”