Egypt’s Islamists, Caught Off Guard by Uprising, Still Defining Role

Cairo – The Muslim Brotherhood, long relegated to the fringes of Egyptian politics, is playing a growing role in the popular revolt against President Hosni Mubarak but is still defining its goals for the country, according to political analysts familiar with the Islamist movement.

Under the one-party regime that Mubarak ran for three decades, the mostly mainstream Brotherhood was officially outlawed but generally tolerated. Still, it went on to become Egypt’s best-organized political movement, claiming 400,000 members.

The Brotherhood has long opposed Mubarak, yet it was caught unprepared by the uprising, and its leadership initially was reticent to take part in the demonstrations.

Several days into the protests, it began flexing its muscle, joining the loose coalition of opposition groups and reaching out to Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize laureate who’s claimed the leadership mantle. It also publicly stated its precondition for talks with the government: that Mubarak first resign.

There’s no question that fundamentalist elements persist among the Islamists. Egyptian liberals, who view the Brotherhood as a risky ally, say the group represents no more than a fraction of the country’s 80 million population.

“The role and influence of the Brother Muslims have been exaggerated intentionally by the Egyptian regime for years, just to send the message to the West that either you accept the dictatorship in Egypt or prepare for another Taliban or Hamas in power. This is not true at all,” said Alaa al Aswany, an acclaimed Egyptian novelist who supports the anti-government protesters.

Mubarak had demonized the movement as fundamentalist, putting it in the same category as al Qaida and the Taliban, and Israel has long expressed fears that the demise of Mubarak would open the way to an extremist regime. Leading members of the Brotherhood formulated the Islamist theology adopted by Osama bin Laden, and one former Brotherhood member, Dr. Ayman Zawahri, is bin Laden’s closest aide.

Yet the Brotherhood said earlier this week that it would recognize all of Egypt’s international treaties, a thinly veiled reference to the country’s longtime peace agreement with Israel.

To many observers, the reference signaled a willingness by the Brotherhood to negotiate with Western powers. Still, the Brotherhood eventually would like to put Egypt’s pact with Israel on the ballot in a national referendum, which would all but assure its rejection.

“Unfortunately, the Western countries and the United States don’t recognize anything other than their own agendas and interests, and ensuring the safety of the Zionist entity,” said Gamal Nassar, a spokesman for the Brotherhood in Cairo, referring to Israel. “That’s OK. They have to protect their interests, but the problem is that we shouldn’t follow or submit to their agenda.”

The United States has long shunned the Brotherhood as a radical anti-Western movement. The U.S. mostly kept silent when Mubarak, its ally, jailed hundreds of Brotherhood members without charges and unleashed thugs on Islamists, the same tactic his regime appears to be using now against anti-government demonstrators in downtown Cairo.

Now, as the Brotherhood moves toward a bigger role in Egyptian politics, the Obama administration has been careful not to exclude it from a future dialogue.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs ducked most questions about the Brotherhood this week. He said a future democratic government would include “a whole host of important non-secular actors,” but that the U.S. wasn’t in touch with the Brotherhood.

Some Egyptian analysts say changes on the horizon also offer the U.S. an opportunity to open a relationship with the movement and perhaps even influence its development.

“Egypt could have a moderate, nonviolent Islamist movement, or the alternative will be a radical movement. The West has to choose between these two options because, either way, Egypt is going to have an Islamist movement,” said Khalil al Anani, a professor in Britain and the author of a book on the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, whose stated goal is to create an Islamic state in Egypt, was founded in 1928. The model of the Brotherhood, which previously included an armed wing, was duplicated in other Arab countries with the advent of Hamas, al Qaida and other Islamist militant groups.

Its members have run in elections as independents and established a noisy pro-reform bloc in parliament, where Brotherhood-affiliated lawmakers boast unmatched attendance. Outside politics, the group operates a nationwide network of social services such as charities, education, medical care and legal assistance.

“They view us as some guys with beards, carrying weapons and hating life,” Osama Zaki, 45, said with a chuckle. He’s a mild-mannered chemist who owns a paint company in Cairo. “We love all Egyptians. Go see who’s protecting the churches now.”

Analysts said this latest push toward Egyptian democracy was likely to transform the Brotherhood’s inner dynamics, perhaps with younger moderates challenging the conservative leadership. Such a move could create stronger alliances between Islamist factions and this new wave of grass-roots nationalists who have popular support but lack the battle-tested Brotherhood’s decades of experience in mass organizing and working underground.

“I prefer that the Islamist movement rules Egypt, but if the people don’t choose the Islamists, then it’s our fault and our obligation to reform ourselves to meet the demands of the people,” Zaki said.

(Shashank Bengali and McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo and Margaret Talev in Washington contributed to this article.)