After Years in the Dark, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Struggles in New Role

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Transitioning from a banned social movement to a formal political party hasn't been easy for the group, but it shows signs of gradual, if halting, progress

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AP


CAIRO, Egypt -- This Tueday, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood became a legal political party for the first time since President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned it more than half-a-century ago. The military officers managing Egypt's transition out of the Age of Mubarak approved the Brotherhood's new Freedom and Justice Party, the Islamist organization's chosen vehicle to political power.

After decades in limbo, the Muslim Brotherhood will now have all the benefits of unambiguous legal status -- and face all the scrutiny and questioning to which a political behemoth is subjected. The Brotherhood has built its considerable following, and honed its impressive organizational wherewithal, by striving in the shadows against a police state's full force.

During their decades under the ban, Brothers spread their religious message and delivered what services they could. Now, however, the challenges are vast and political, and the underground methods of a doctrinaire religious group (whose primary mission, always, was spreading a strict message of faith) won't play the same way on the political stage.

"By the grace of freedom, by the grace of the revolution, we have regained our place"

It's a confusing transition for the Islamist activists trying to reposition their organization from oppressed social group to political strongman. That identity crisis was on display a few weeks before the official announcement at the grand opening of the Brotherhood's new headquarters, an unmistakable physical embodiment of its new status.

At the building's grand coming-out party, hundreds of Brotherhood elite swaggered around the new seven-story monstrosity in Moqattam, which looks like an egg-cream ziggurat on a breezy plateau above Islamic Cairo.

"We're not banned anymore," exulted Mohsen Radi, who served a turn in parliament as a representative of a Delta town called Banha. "By the grace of freedom, by the grace of the revolution, we have regained our place."

As symbols go, the building and its inaugural could not have been more potent, and served as prelude for this week's rubber-stamp of the Freedom and Justice Party. For decades, the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide operated out of a stuffy, dark, low-ceilinged apartment on the isle of Manial, in Cairo's center. A team of state security men loitered out front. Entering visitors had to clamber over the pile of shoes in the hallway, between the elevator and the door. Senior officials would conduct interviews in the corner of the same room where the rest of the leadership deliberated.

It was, to say the least, a no-frills operation, highlighting the Brotherhood's ambiguous status as a legally prohibited but semi-tolerated organization.

From 2005 through 2009, when the Brothers held 88 parliamentary seats, the organization opened a slightly more spacious parliamentary office nearby. State security forbade them from organizing any large public events, however, and even their annual Ramadan iftaar was cancelled. During functions there, the power often mysteriously cut out with a frequency that the Brotherhood accepted as one of the more petty manifestations of state harassment.

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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