The downstairs entrance is littered with rubbish, and the stairwell is dark and cramped. Only the opulence of the second-floor door – a broad, ornate colossus of a door – offers any clue as to what lies inside this unprepossessing apartment block in an unfashionable corner of Cairo’s Roda Island.
Behind the door are the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that – depending on who you believe – is about to either give Egypt the Taliban treatment or help steer the country through transition to a pluralist democracy.
Given the international opprobrium that its name often inspires, perhaps it’s not surprising that the brotherhood prefers a low-key, almost shabby feel for its headquarters. “We are not in the forefront,” smiles Essam el-Erian [pictured], a senior brotherhood leader. “We keep a step behind.”
A step behind is exactly where the brotherhood has been accused of being during the past two weeks of momentous upheaval in Egypt, two weeks in which the world’s oldest Islamist organisation found itself out on the sidelines as a new political reality unfolded before its eyes.
When the call first went out for mass pro-change protests on 25 January, the brotherhood responded as it always has to any major anti-government activity originating outside its own sphere of influence – it dithered. With that dithering came a loss of credibility, as the demonstrations gathered momentum and coalesced into nothing short of a revolutionary challenge to 30 years of entrenched dictatorship.
Now, though – having been wrong-footed and overtaken by largely non-religious young activists – the brotherhood is seeking to regain its standing as the country’s leading opposition movement, without turning either local or western opinion against it.
Playing catch-up has seen the brotherhood engaging in dialogue with a government that has long kept it outlawed – thus gaining a legal legitimacy denied since 1954 – while at the same time trying to avoid accusations of a sell-out from the hundreds of thousands who continue to pack Tahrir Square and who want to see President Hosni Mubarak gone before any negotiations towards a democratic transition can begin.
“There is no compromise,” Erian (above right) told the Guardian on Tuesday. “We reassess our position every day, maybe every hour. We give them some time to discuss … [Those around Mubarak] are arranging their affairs because he was a symbol of the regime and he was controlling them. They need some time. We give them this chance. A week.”
The “Brother Muslimhood” – as the vice-president, Omar Suleiman, repeatedly called it this week during a TV interview with Christiane Amanpour – also faces a potentially more difficult tightrope walk internationally.
Its need is to position itself at the forefront of Egypt’s post-Mubarak future without sounding alarm bells in western capitals, where Mubarak’s warnings about the dire threats posed by the brotherhood have often been taken at face value. It’s a dilemma that Erian is only too aware of. “Mr Obama, Mrs Clinton, Mr Cameron, Mr Sarkozy, when they see us at the front they say we are another Khomeini, another Iranian [revolution],” he says.
But placating foreign powers was not what Hassan al-Banna founded the movement for in 1928. It was Britain’s presence in Egypt that led to the brotherhood’s creation. Six Egyptian workers employed in the military camps of Ismailiyya in the Suez Canal Zone visited Banna, a young teacher who they had heard preaching in mosques and cafes on the need for “Islamic renewal”.
“Arabs and Muslims have no status and no dignity,” they complained, according to the brotherhood’s official history. “They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners … We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it …” Banna later wrote that the Europeans had expropriated the resources of Muslim lands and corrupted them with “murderous germs”: “They imported their half-naked women into these regions, together with their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels, their whims, their silly games, and their vices … The day must come when the castles of this materialistic civilisation will be laid low upon the heads of their inhabitants.”
Banna argued that Islam provided a complete solution, with divine guidance on everything from worship and spiritual matters to the law, politics and social organisation. He established an evening school for the working classes which impressed the general inspector of education and by 1931 the brotherhood had constructed its first mosque – for which the Suez Canal Company is said to have provided some of the funds.
Banna was offering a religious alternative to the more secular and western-inspired nationalist ideas that had so far failed to liberate Egypt from the clutches of foreign powers, and the popular appeal of his message was undeniable: by 1938, the movement had 300 branches across the country, as well as others in Lebanon and Syria.
During the second world war, British attitudes towards the brotherhood – and those of the British-backed Egyptian monarchy – ranged from suppression to covert support, since it was viewed as a possible counterweight against the secular nationalist party, the Wafd, and the communists. In 1948, the movement sent volunteers to fight in Palestine against the establishment of Israel and there were numerous bomb attacks on Jews in Cairo – at least some of which are attributed to the brotherhood.
A year later, members assassinated a judge who had jailed a Muslim Brother for attacking British soldiers. The Egyptian government ordered the brotherhood to be dissolved and many of its members were arrested. The prime minister was then assassinated by a Brother and in February 1949 Banna was himself gunned down in the streets of Cairo, apparently on the order of the authorities.
The brotherhood was also implicated in an attempt to assassinate President Gamal Nasser in 1954, but it has long since renounced violence as a political means in Egypt. By the 1980s it was making determined efforts to join the political mainstream, making a series of alliances with the Wafd, the Labour and Liberal parties. In the 2000 election it won 17 parliamentary seats. Five years later, with candidates standing as independents for legal reasons, it won 88 seats – 20% of the total and its best electoral result to date.
“There can be no question that genuine democracy must prevail,” Mohammad Mursi, a brotherhood spokesman, wrote in an article for Tuesday’s Guardian. “While the Muslim Brotherhood is unequivocal regarding its basis in Islamic thought, it rejects any attempt to enforce any ideological line upon the Egyptian people.”
Although the Brotherhood appears to have firmly embraced democracy, the means for reconciling that with its religious principles are not entirely clear: the issue of God’s sovereignty versus people’s sovereignty looks to have been fudged rather than resolved.
The Brotherhood continues to maintain that “Islam is the solution” while at the same time demonstrating a kind of pragmatism that suggests Islam may not be a complete solution after all.
One example is jizya, the poll tax on non-Muslims, which is clearly prescribed in the Qur’an. The original idea was that non-Muslims, since they did not serve in the military, should pay for their protection by Muslims.
Today, most Muslims regard jizya as obsolete.In order to follow Qur’anic principles strictly, though, it would have to be reinstated. In 1997, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide at the time, Mustafa Mashhur, did suggest reintroducing it but, in a country with around 6 million Christians, this caused uproar and the movement later backtracked. For non-Islamist Muslims, jizya presents no great problem: they can justify its abolition on the basis of historicity – that the circumstances in which the tax was imposed no longer exist today. For Islamists, though, this is much more difficult because the words of the Qur’an and the practices of the earliest Muslims form the core of their ideology.
The late Nasr Abu Zayd, a liberal theologian who was hounded out of Egypt by Islamists in the 1990s, regarded historicity as the crux of the issue. “If they concede historicity, all the ideology will just fall down,” he said, “… the entire ideology of the word of God.”
He argued that the brotherhood’s semi-illegal status allows it to agitate and sloganise without needing to face the realities of everyday politics or having its policies subjected to much critical scrutiny.
Years of repression at the hands of the Egyptian authorities have made the brotherhood more interested in human rights than many might expect from an Islamist organisation. When the European parliament criticised Egypt’s record in 2008, the Mubarak regime responded with fury, while Hussein Ibrahim, the brotherhood’s parliamentary spokesman, sided with Europe.
“The issue of human rights has become a global language,” he said. “Although each country has its own particulars, respect of human rights is now a concern for all peoples” – though he specifically excluded gay rights.
Rather than deploring criticism from abroad, he said, the Egyptian government would do better to improve its human rights record, which would leave less room for foreigners to cause embarrassment.
Erian, an outspoken reformist on the brotherhood’s guidance council, is at pains to sketch out the limits of his organisation’s political ambitions. He insists that it has no plans to run a candidate for the presidency, though any broad-backed opposition “unity” candidate will obviously need the brotherhood’s approval.
But he goes further and says the brotherhood will not even seek a majority in parliament – a far cry from the predictions of many Washington-based analysts that it is waiting in the wings to seize control of the most populous Arab country.
“If we can build a wide coalition instead, this would be good,” Erian says. “This is our strategy for many reasons: not to frighten others, inside or outside, and also because this is a country destroyed, destroyed by Mubarak and his family – why would the rebuilding task be only for us? It’s not our task alone, it’s the job of all Egyptians.” He adds: “The Muslim Brothers are a special case because we are not seeking power through violent or military means like other Islamic organisations that might be violent. We are a peaceful organisation; we work according to the constitution and the law.”
Khalil Al Anani, an expert on Egypt’s political Islamists at Durham University, points out that during the protests the Brotherhood has made no specific political demands relating to its own goals.
“At the high level, they have made a smart tactical move in mandating ElBaradei to be a spokesman for Egyptian opposition forces, because it’s a signal to the west. The Brotherhood don’t want the west to diminish this revolution, and hence they don’t want to give the west any excuse to support Mubarak. By putting ElBaradei up they avoid giving them that excuse.”
Although outsiders often use words like “smart” and “savvy” when describing the brotherhood, some regard its missteps during the initial 25 January protests as an example of its incompetence. “In 83 years it has botched every opportunity,” anthropologist Scott Atran wrote last week. “Its failure to support the initial uprising in Cairo on January 25 has made it marginal to the spirit of revolt now spreading through the Arab world.”
But if the brotherhood is not seeking political power, what is its purpose? Josh Stacher, an expert on the movement, says it should be viewed in the context of its earlier anti-colonial struggle: “It’s very much about providing Egyptian answers to Egyptian problems. Also, it’s organised on a grassroots level. It offers people opportunities in a way that the Egyptian state doesn’t. It’s almost a mini parallel state without a military.”
Among its members there is a division between those who want the group to concentrate on dawa, or social evangelism, and those who see political power as the ultimate goal. The former include people such as the current conservative supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, who see formal politics as only one part of an overall toolkit in the challenge to make Egyptian society more thoroughly Islamic.
It’s a distinction that has long kept the brotherhood fragmented, leaving it more as an umbrella group for Islamist political forces of many different shades than as the monolithic vanquisher of liberal secular values so often portrayed in the international media. Erian acknowledges the existence of internal dissent, but claims the holistic nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, and indeed of Islam as a religion, means that these different outlooks can be a source of strength rather than a weakness.
“Islam is one unit – jobs or tasks can be divided,” he says. “It’s like the state – one unit, but with 40 or so ministers all doing their jobs. It’s the same with us. We are ready to play a political role, but under the umbrella of a wider structure.”
He goes on to compare the Brotherhood’s workings to those of the individual. “I am an imam in the mosque near my home. I am a politician. I am a representative to the media. I am a physician – I go to the lab every night to look through microscopes. You cannot divide me. If time pressures push me towards one aspect, the others still can’t be neglected.”
As Egypt has changed over the past fortnight, with young people propelling themselves dramatically into the heart of the country’s political future, so too has the brotherhood, where an ageing leadership clique has been challenged by a fresher generation of members, keen to take a more confrontational stance with the Mubarak regime and quicker to forge alliances with forces the brotherhood have traditionally not been warm towards, such as Coptic Christian and women’s groups.
“The reformist wing within the brotherhood will be strengthened, at the expense of the conservative old guard,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Egypt’s political Islamists at Durham University.
“The Mubarak regime was very skilful at exaggerating the influence of the Brotherhood and painting them as a threat to Egyptian society and to the west,” he added. “It was the pretext for Mubarak’s rule, and it was a lie. I think that if Egypt held free and fair elections tomorrow the Brotherhood would not get a majority; it would enjoy a significant presence in parliament but the overall makeup of seats would be pluralistic. This is the time for the west to rethink its attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood. If they don’t start assessing the weight of the brotherhood accurately, they will make major miscalculations in the coming days.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010