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

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



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.

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.

Now, however, the Brotherhood is freely exercising its organizational muscle. Since Mubarak was run out of office, the Muslim Brotherhood has opened offices in every province. It has its own satellite television network in the works, which reportedly will be called Egypt 25 and could launch in June. It has entered coalition talks with other groups. Its new political party claims a Coptic Christian vice president, though that move has done little to assuage worries among Egyptian Christians and secularists.

In truth, the Brotherhood's top leaders are accustomed to operating in secrecy, and they resent the doubts of their secular political opponents as much as they do the pushback they face from their own younger members. The supreme guide of the Brotherhood has drawn criticism in recent months for his view that women and Christians should not be allowed to serve as president of Egypt and for backing the incorporation of sharia punishment into Egyptian criminal law.

These positions -- anathema to many Egyptian centrists who still consider themselves religious -- have fed a growing anxiety that the Brotherhood will hold a dominant position in the political pecking order. According to a Gallup poll released this week, only 15 percent of Egyptians say they support the Muslim Brotherhood. That's slightly better than the National Democratic Party, Hosni Mubarak's party, which 10 percent of respondents said they support.

At first, the Brotherhood said it would contest only 30 percent of the seats in parliament, and wouldn't run a presidential candidate. In late May it raised the ante, now saying it will compete for half the parliamentary districts.

The opening of the new official headquarters in Moqattam dramatically punctuated the Brotherhood's transformation. Bright lights illuminate the party logo in English and Arabic -- a pair of green crossed swords.

About a hundred movement activists prayed outside before the official opening (the building's been in use for months already). They chanted the Brotherhood motto in unison:

God is great.
The Prophet is our teacher.
The Koran is our constitution.
Jihad is our way.
Martyrdom is our goal.

Then they stormed into the building and emptied trays of fruit juice.

In a sign of the Brotherhood's political heft, a parade of notables came to pay respects, including presidential front-runner and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and a coterie of other secular politicians and judges.

In a rear lot behind the headquarters, more than a thousand supporters assembled in a dirt lot covered with carpets for the occasion. A band sang paeans to freedom, brotherhood, and the Brotherhood.

Khairat Shater, a millionaire and the number-two official in the Brotherhood credited with being one of its most powerful fixers, grinned just beside the stage.

"Where do you think state security is now?" I asked. At the last Brotherhood function I attended, an iftaar in the parliamentary offices in August, the number of plainclothes intelligence officers hovering around the event equaled that of the Brotherhood officials inside.

"They haven't gone home," he said. "They're around here somewhere."

If one were keeping score, however, the Brotherhood would look to be ahead.