The Brotherhood

Is the uprising changing the Islamist group so feared in both Egypt and the West?

  • Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

    Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tahrir

    Fathi Mohamed Hassan doesn't stand out among the thousands upon thousands who have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A father of four, Hassan, 43, hails from the working-class factory sprawl of the Nile Delta — sort of Egypt's Midwest — and with his round, bearded face and blue-plaid flannel shirt, he looks like the kind of guy who sells computer parts, which he does. But he's also a rank-and-file member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group banned in Egypt — one with a reputation that many in the country as well as the West find foreboding.

    "I'm here because who likes a dictatorship?" Hassan says as the two men with him chuckle. They are strangers to him but also members of the Brotherhood. Individuals may not stand out in the massive protests, but clumps of them do. Hassan and his comrades do not disguise the fact that there is planning behind their presence. "It's all organized by province and district," Hassan explains. "For example, some will come for two days, then go home and come back." He adds, "The Muslim Brotherhood has a good sense of organization and work ethic. They are very committed."

    Persistence has been at the heart of the Brotherhood since its birth in 1928. Taking some inspiration from Cairo's Young Men's Muslim Association, founded the year before, it combined nationalism and anticolonialism with the belief that Islam and its tenets were the solution to the challenges facing Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. A network of cells took on paramilitary capabilities. In late 1948, the Brotherhood assassinated Egypt's Prime Minister, and the government retaliated by killing the group's founder a couple of months later.

    In the 1950s, Sayyid Qutb, a theoretician of the Brotherhood, came up with an ideology of jihad against non-Islamic entities. Qutb's work inspired firebrands like Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Osama bin Laden's deputy in al-Qaeda, and Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheik" who inspired the first bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as other terrorist groups. Qutb fell afoul of the popular and secular regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had him executed in 1966. The government persecution of the Brotherhood continued under Nasser's successors, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak.

    The pressure changed the Brotherhood, and by the 1980s, though still banned, it was professing nonviolent opposition to the regime. It channeled its energies into social reform, education and political representation by making informal alliances with legal parties and fielding independent candidates. In 2005 it won 88 out of 454 seats in parliament, becoming the second largest bloc after the ruling National Democratic Party. Brotherhood leaders in Tahrir Square consistently speak of their commitment to the nonsectarian nature of Egypt. "The Muslim Brotherhood takes Islam as a template, but we don't have a religious state or God-ordained rule," says Ibrahim Zakaria, a Brotherhood official and former member of parliament. "We believe in democracy and all its rules. We believe in the principle that the people are the origin and source of sovereignty and that the people choose their leaders in free and secret ballots."

    In November 2010, however, after elections that were widely seen as rigged, the Brotherhood was not able to win a single seat. That disenfranchisement helped send individual members into the streets when the uprising began on Jan. 25, even though their leadership at first kept a polite, if not cool, distance. "Why didn't the Muslim Brotherhood go in at the beginning?" Hassan asks rhetorically. "They didn't because then the whole world would have thought that the Muslim Brotherhood was leading the revolution." But members were willing to shed their own blood. "The Brotherhood was here in the middle of the people," Hassan says of that first day of rebellion. "Some of them died, and some of them were injured."

    The Brotherhood's peaceableness over the past three decades, however, has not made it reputable among some Egyptians who still view it as an enemy within that continues to preach bilious intolerance, as some members indeed do. Yasser Salaheddine, a 36-year-old supporter of the President who repairs rugs for a living, says, "When you speak of the Brothers, you have to speak of Hizballah, of Hamas and of Iran. They are all tied together." Mohammad, 38, a cabdriver, sees a threat to his livelihood. Egypt, he says, "cannot be ruled by people who will tell you that ... a taxi driver can't pick up a female who doesn't have a male guardian."

    Other Egyptians point out that Shari'a has been the constitutional basis of legislation since 1982, that Islam is the state religion and that all the Brotherhood wants is a stricter adherence to it. Speaking of the Brothers, Osama Hussein Hafiz, a 40-year-old lawyer, says, "Some of them are very good, and some of them, I'm not so sure about. Just like any party, there is good and bad in it." As Hassan sees it, "the main goal of the Brotherhood is to raise individual Muslims" — with emphasis on individual.

    The diversity of the crowds in Tahrir may also have an effect on the Brotherhood, exposing members to the breadth of opinion now freely visible. The square buzzes not just with chants against the government but also with conversations among Egyptians of all types.

    Hassan sounds just like any one of them. "I'm protesting for freedoms — political freedom, freedom of expression, freedom for people to be able to do and say what they want, for rights," he says. Elsewhere in the square, Mohammed Chalabi, an Arabic teacher, surveys the strange, singular amalgam of Tahrir. "It was the government that created false enemies because it had no legitimacy," he says. "When we are a free country, we won't need any enemies."