The Muslim Brotherhood's Strategy in Egypt

"This is a revolution for all Egyptians--it's not ours"


Some Americans fear that Egypt in 2011 could repeat Iran in 1979, when a small group of religious fanatics hijacked a revolution. They see another popular uprising overtaking a much-hated, U.S.-backed dictator. They know that the strongest opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that is unfriendly to the United States (In my years of interviewing Brotherhood leaders, I've almost never heard one say anything friendly about the U.S., which they regard with open and conspiratorial hostility.) And they worry that the dictator's impending fall will invite another Islamist takeover, which could undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East for decades to come.

Ironically, nobody understands these fears better than the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The Egyptian Islamist organization knows that if it does anything that even remotely appears as though it is trying to take charge of the opposition, it will become the global face of Egypt's popular revolt - subjecting both the revolt generally and the group specifically to the scrutiny of an international community that doesn't want to see a Brotherhood-ruled Egypt. So for the moment, its leaders say that they will neither run a presidential candidate nor participate in any transitional government. Their coyness is likely to continue until a political transition is consolidated.

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."

In 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 are held.

"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 bottom line."

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."

El-Erian 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