Inside the Brotherhood

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey and Babak Dehghanpisheh

Standing near the entrance to a blood-stained alley off Cairo's Tahrir Square, engineer and political activist Mamdouh Hamza, 63, credits the Muslim Brotherhood with saving the day. "We needed them," he says. "They were very important to the resistance." A short distance down the alley is the makeshift hospital that treated the hundreds of anti-regime protesters who were bludgeoned, stabbed, shot, burned by Molotov cocktails, or hit by flying rocks during last week's battle against President Hosni Mubarak's men. And yet the protesters managed to hold their ground, thanks to the Brotherhood's reinforcements, Hamza says, scanning the crowd in the square. "Half the people here, or maybe 40 percent, are Muslim Brotherhood," he says. "They were a very important factor."

But how much more important will they become? The Brotherhood's hardline Islamist roots frighten a lot of people, both outside Egypt and in. Addressing Israel's Knesset last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the specter of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which transformed a staunch ally of Israel into one of its worst enemies. Members of the U.S. Congress expressed similar fears. And so, of course, did Mubarak, who has presented himself as Egypt's last line of defense against radical Islam ever since the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, by followers of a Muslim Brotherhood splinter group. He told ABC's Christiane Amanpour last week that although he's fed up with ruling, he can't abandon his post now or "chaos" would come.

The nasty truth is, chaos has already arrived. In and around Tahrir Square, Mubarak's men charged on horseback and camelback into the peaceful throng of demonstrators, showered them with stones, and surged into their ranks with clubs and knives. The supposedly neutral Egyptian Army, mounted on U.S.-supplied Abrams main battle tanks, sat back and let the pro-regime thugs carry out the assault. And by the time the fighting stopped, the Brotherhood had won more popular support than ever. "The Egyptian administration is making the Brotherhood the face of the opposition," says Scott Atran, author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. And yet Atran argues that the group has no more than 100,000 or so followers in a nation of more than 80 million.

The protests caught the Brotherhood at least as unprepared as the government was. The organizers were a band of young techies who mobilized thousands of people from almost every stratum of Egyptian society--with the notable exception of the Brotherhood, which declined to join the first massive demonstrations on Jan. 25. The group did participate in subsequent nationwide rallies, however, and it's impossible to say whether it had any involvement in the violence that marred some of those protests, such as the burning of Mubarak's party's Cairo headquarters on the night of Jan. 28. Last week the president finally announced that he would not run for reelection--and there was no doubt after that who instigated the violence. Mubarak's supporters and security apparatus went on the attack against protesters, journalists, and randomly selected foreigners.

Mubarak's evident strategy is like that of a gangster's protection racket, striking fear into the same society he claims to defend. It's a game the 82-year-old president can't hope to play much longer. And through it all, it's the Brotherhood that will endure. "They have been around forever," says Atran. "They are not going to fold." The group was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a firebrand who preached Muslim ideals but modeled his organization on other ideological movements of his era. "They were founded as paramilitary cells, on fascist and communist models, and that is how they survived," says Atran. …