Mohamed ElBaradei has taken Egypt's stagnant political scene by storm since his reincarnation two months ago from Nobel Peace Prizewinning international nuclear watchdog to domestic reform campaigner. But any effort to push the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak into making democratic concessions is unlikely to succeed without the support of the only opposition force in Egypt with a real grass-roots following: the banned Muslim Brotherhood. That leaves ElBaradei facing the question of whether to make common cause with a party regarded with suspicion by many secular democrats.
Brotherhood members have met with ElBaradei in recent weeks as have representatives of Egypt's other opposition parties as the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief begins to rally politicians, activists and intellectuals of varying political stripes to press for democratic changes to Egypt's constitution. His expanding coalition is so far composed of individuals rather than parties, but its energizing impact on the Egyptian political scene is unprecedented. And its potential to go further than any of its predecessors is demonstrated by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood which declined to join ranks with the last pro-democracy effort, Kifaya (Enough) in 2005 says it's ready to jump on ElBaradei's bandwagon. The Brotherhood's secretary general, Mahmoud Hussein, declared publicly last week that his group would join ElBaradei's coalition as a party if he'll have them.
ElBaradei has yet to signal whether he'll allow the Islamists to join his coalition. But some say the support of the Brotherhood as a bloc would give any reform movement the spine it needs to stand up to a regime willing to get tough. Such an alliance would also greatly expand the grass-roots organizational reach of ElBaradei's coalition, which has thus far been unable to set up regional campaign offices or raise funds in a closely controlled political system. "The national coalition doesn't need Tagamma or the Nasserists," says Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at Kent State University, referring to some of Egypt's established but largely inconsequential opposition parties. "They need the Brothers. You cannot have a movement pushing for political reform or change in Egypt without the Brothers on board."
Pro-democracy, and advocating a state based on Islamic law, the Brotherhood is far more popular than any of the small liberal opposition groups that joined together in 2005 under the banner of Kifaya or those who supported the presidential campaign of Ayman Nour, who came in second to Mubarak in the country's first multicandidate presidential race.
The Brotherhood has been officially banned since 1954 but partially tolerated nonetheless during various periods ever since. It runs a network of charities across the country and operates offices in various towns and cities. When the regime let its guard down, under pressure from the Bush Administration, for the first round of parliamentary elections in 2005, Brotherhood members running as independents captured 88 of 454 seats, making them the largest opposition bloc in parliament.
"The Brotherhood is a big organization and a strong one. So we [as a coalition] may somehow together make something that may mobilize the people the laymen in the society. This may lead to a better situation," said Mohamed Moursi, a Brotherhood spokesman.
But any alliance with the Islamist party may be as likely to handicap ElBaradei's movement as it would boost it. For one thing, it could hasten repression by the state: since 2005, the regime has cracked down hard on the organization, extracting a heavy price for its participation in politics. And some see the cooperative attitude from the Brothers including a spate of recent Brotherhood-initiated attempts at dialogue with other opposition groups as a response to the battering they're taking from the regime.
"When you go home at night and have dinner and close your door, you are always expecting someone to come and take you to jail," says Abdel Fatah Rizq, a high-ranking Brotherhood member. "They come after midnight at 1 o'clock, at 2 o'clock, at 3 o'clock. If 3 passes and they didn't come, you can sleep well. This is a daily experience."
The Brotherhood's presence would also make it more difficult to maintain the unity of a coalition already stretched by its diversity. "There are lots of struggles within this coalition," opposition leader Nour told TIME last week. "However, we will not discuss the internal problems; we'll discuss what we want to achieve." Liberal activists are wary of the Brotherhood's Islamist aspirations, while a Brotherhood official conceded to TIME that a number of his group's stances on issues such as women's and Christian rights are divisive and urgently need to be changed.
The independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported on Monday that the Brotherhood leaked its platform for the legislative elections slated for May in an effort to test the waters. Discord within the Brotherhood's ranks was evident in some members' comments to the newspaper that the group's motto a repeat of its 2007 slogan, "Islam Is the Solution" might undermine the group's recent attempts at unity.
Previous efforts to unite Egypt's disparate opposition parties ended badly. And as the Brotherhood knows better than most, the first obstacle to achieving democratic reform may be the determination of the 28-year Mubarak regime to suppress such challenges. Despite recognizing the potential of an alliance with ElBaradei's coalition, Brotherhood spokesman Moursi warns that the obstacles are severe: "I don't think in the near future it will lead to real reform. Not even in the 2011 elections."
But while repression has at times crippled the Brotherhood's leadership and left many of its members pessimistic, it has also toughened the movement's rank and file and given it a resilience vital to any movement looking to challenge a regime ready to resort to violence to retain power. "Jail is a very good experience," Rizq says with a smile, "because it makes your personality stronger."
If a successful democratic movement requires active grass-roots support in Egypt, having the Brotherhood on board may be key to reaching the masses. And its steel may be as important to ElBaradei's coalition as its popular support. "From what I've seen, one strong swing of a truncheon, and things really fall apart in the opposition," says Egypt expert Stacher. "They won't fall apart on the Brothers if they do this."