The Brotherhood is forming a coalition with liberal parties to help unify the Islamist political party and to improve their odds in the upcoming elections


Mohamed Mursi, head of the Brotherhood's newly formed Justice and Freedom Party / Reuters

CAIRO, Egypt -- The recently legalized political arm of Egypt's most robust opposition movement for the past half-century, the Muslim Brotherhood, pledged to enter a broad coalition with the country's foremost secular parties this week in Cairo, in preparation for parliamentary elections slated for September.

Brotherhood officials appointed to lead the group's Freedom and Justice Party say the decision aims to ensure a stable and politically balanced democratic transition for a country still in flux after the ouster of strongman President Hosni Mubarak.

"The organization and the party and Egyptian society are working in a new era. This is a very dangerous political period," said Vice President of Freedom and Justice Essam Al-Arian, an influential figure within the group. "We want to pass the next few months safely with the help of others."

But Brotherhood reformists, other political players, and Egyptian analysts say that this new political alliance -- which will include the prominent liberal Wafd Party -- is primarily geared towards self-preservation. Should the Muslim Brotherhood launch a bid for parliamentary majority, critics say the group will face external and internal pressures it may be incapable of handling.

"The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't want to get full responsibility," said high-ranking Wafd official Hossam el-Khouly. "If they would rule, and don't receive global economic support, the people will get rid of them."

Officials have not yet hashed out the details of the alliance, but el-Khouly expects the various parties to enter the poll on a shared electoral list.

"There will be negotiations," said el-Khouly. "Everyone knows their own power."

In this new and dynamic era of political liberalization in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, according to political expert and professor at the American University of Cairo Samer Soliman, likely wants to avoid seizing complete control of the political landscape and risking international isolation.

"For the time being, they're trying to play a low profile," said Soliman. "They don't need to dominate power. But they want a significant voice."

Since Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power following a 1953 military coup, the Muslim Brotherhood has suffered political suppression, assassinations, and mass imprisonment. In an effort to maintain cohesion, the group largely shelved internal reform. Now, however, rifts are growing within the group, with youth members criticizing the veteran leadership and some prominent Brotherhood figures defying the group's highest command. Entering this coalition may help to alleviate this internal pressure.

"The alliance is to protect their image," said Brotherhood youth leader Mohamed al-Qasas, who stopped frequently during our talk to answer one of the two cell phones that seemed to always be ringing. "They are under so much pressure from the inside and outside."

Al-Qasas joined the 25 January Youth Coalition weeks before the Egyptian revolution swept the streets of the Arab world's largest city. Muslim Brotherhood officials refused to back his participation in the group until a week into the fray, when many Egyptians began to expect Mubarak's coerced abdication.

"The [Muslim Brotherhood] leadership never told us to be there," said al-Qasas. "It was an individual effort."

But when Al-Qasas joined protesters again on May 27th for the second Day of Rage, a demonstration with the ambiguous mission to 'protect the goals of the revolution', the Brotherhood stripped him of his capacity to officially represent the group. With Egyptians set to go to the polls in September, the Brotherhood denounced further acts of defiance. The group, according to Al-Qasas, now simply eyes electoral success.

"The leadership doesn't care about the unity of Egypt," said Al-Qasas. "They care about the [Freedom and Justice] Party and the Muslim Brotherhood."

Reformist elements within the group say they are urging greater internal and external democratization as well as increased representation for women.

"There's so much difference in opinions between the youth and older members of the group," said Al-Qasas. "It will affect us in the future. Maybe they will interrogate us or investigate us at some point."

The alliance, according to Soliman, aims to placate the group's malcontents.

"Joining a coalition with other political forces will give leverage to reformists," said Soliman. "The reform wants more openness and cooperation with other forces. The reformists are pushing for these types of coalitions."

The vast majority of Brotherhood supporters, says Soliman, will still cast their ballot in favor of Freedom and Justice come September. The group largely garners its support from rural, impoverished areas of the country where the Brotherhood has administered a vast network of social welfare projects over past decades.

"There is a segment more progressive, more enlightened," said Soliman. "This segment is mostly young and urban. The bulk of the Brotherhood is in small cities and conservative."

The extent of divisions within the group remains unknown. In a move that appears set to exacerbate internal strife, however, prominent Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh recently announced his intention to run for the presidency, in flagrant defiance of the leadership's decision to not field a contender. Group leaders have forbid all Brotherhood members from supporting his candidacy.

"It's a big fear within the party to go vote for Aboul Fotouh or someone else," said Al-Qasas. "The fear is there."

Despite the visible ruptures within the Muslim Brotherhood, the group's years of operating in an oppressive political climate have proven it to be an adept political survivor. Experts expect the Brotherhood, through entering this coalition, to emerge powerfully intact, a view shared by the parties most prominent figures.

"All Egyptian society is under tension now. We are suffering but we are suffering the least. We will lose some members to the confusion," said VP of Freedom and Justice Al-Arian. "We've had critical periods in the past but we've survived and emerged stronger."

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