This has been the
Brotherhood's operating style for nearly a month. When Egyptian
activists first began planning discussions for the fateful January 25th
protests following the Tunisian uprising, Brotherhood leader Essam
el-Erian hinted to me that the group would stay on the sidelines,
observing that the Mubarak regime uses "the Muslim Brotherhood as a
bogeyman to frighten the people and the Western countries." Even after
the protests gained traction, Brotherhood leaders continued to downplay
their involvement, claiming that Muslim Brothers were participating
merely "as independent Egyptians" rather than as members of an Islamist
organization. Since joining an ad hoc coalition of opposition groups
involved with the protesters, members of the organization have refused
to take a leading role.
"This is a revolution for all Egyptians -- it's not ours," el-Erian said on Monday. "The revolution was raised by the people."
recent days, the Muslim Brotherhood has worked assiduously to avoid too
much attention by following other groups' lead. On Sunday, Brotherhood
representatives joined a coalition of approximately 30 opposition
leaders and intellectuals who met with Vice-President Omar Suleiman to
discuss a transition. But, on Monday, the Muslim Brotherhood announced
that it had withdrawn from the talks, joining with other organizations
in demanding that Hosni Mubarak leave office before any future meetings
"The basis of negotiations was not there," said
Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi, who attended the meeting with
Suleiman. "Our basic position is with the people: that [the] president
should step down. This is our bottom line, because it is the people's
To further assimilate itself into the popular
revolt, the Brotherhood has released a set of demands mirroring those of
liberal opposition groups. These include abolishing the emergency law,
dissolving both parliamentary bodies, holding new elections under
judicial supervision, releasing detainees and political prisoners,
investigating the regime's violence against demonstrators, and forming a
transitional government. To avoid becoming a lightning rod for attacks,
the Brotherhood's leaders have said that they will not participate in
this transitional government.
"We want to keep an eye [on
things]," said Morsi. "We want to be a part of the social movement and
social activities, but do not want to be a part of the government at
least for this period, which can be for many years."
even suggested that, were Egypt to hold a new round of parliamentary
elections, the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't even nominate enough
candidates to gain to gain a majority. "In the last parliamentary
elections, we named about 160 candidates for 554 seats. We are for
gradual, peaceful change," he said.
For the moment, the Muslim
Brotherhood's lax, backseat role has added to Egyptian liberal leaders'
confidence. "I don't think they can be a leader of the opposition," says
Ghad party leader Shadi Taha. "Looking at the political playground,
there might be some support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it can't be
more than 15 percent."
Yet in a country where few people have any
experience voting, a tightly organized political movement stands to
mobilize voters more effectively than the looser, liberal organizations
now leading the demonstrations. And therein lies the true genius of the
Muslim Brotherhood's strategy: It knows that it can win in the long run,
if it can emerge relatively unscathed over the short run.
Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty