It used to be easy to meet those leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who were not behind bars. They could be found in a dusty office on a Cairo side street; they had time for all visitors. Today, however, the movement has an imposing new headquarters in a suburb overlooking the city. One has to nag or pull strings to secure a meeting, and even then the visitor finds himself or herself shuffled between waiting rooms, lucky to be granted a quick interview as leaders rush from one meeting to the next, taking time out only (of course) to pray in the foyer. Shortly before Mubarak’s fall, one-third of the Brotherhood’s top leadership was imprisoned. Now, one Brotherhood member is about to become the parliamentary speaker; by the end of the year, several ministries (and perhaps even the premiership) should lie in the Brotherhood’s hands. Egypt will quite likely have a president who owes his election to its support.
This is a heady moment for the Brotherhood, and it is one for which nothing in the group’s history prepares it. On one occasion in the early 1950s, the Brotherhood was offered a Cabinet ministry. That was as close as it came to political power. But the Brotherhood prides itself on thinking of generations, not electoral cycles. Can the Brothers sustain their sudden success?
In the country at large, the problems of Egypt’s transition are almost too numerous to mention: the crumbling economy, the cascade of conflicting statements from military rulers, an idiosyncratic electoral process and strangely drafted constitutional framework all continue to cause confusion. Most eyes are currently — and will remain for the next few months — on the big political questions: How will Egypt’s parliamentary blocs work together (if at all)? Will the military really surrender power, and if so, on what terms? How will the country’s constitution be written — and who will write it?
All these questions do occupy the attention of Brotherhood leaders. But in conversations with them over the past few months, I am convinced that three longer-term issues loom just as large for them as the day-to-day maneuverings that make all the headlines.
First, they know that other Islamist movements have come close to power in the region before, only to be pushed aside rudely by their domestic or international opponents. Therefore, they need to mollify liberals, avoid frightening the military and present a businesslike face to Europe and the United States — all without forgetting what they like to call their “fixed positions.” Or at least they must be seen as doing so in front of their followers. That requires not just simply carefully tailoring statements, but also learning how to speak those statements in one voice, something that has been difficult in the rush of recent events.
Nowhere is this problem more acute for the Brotherhood than in the area of Israeli-Egyptian relations. Support for the Palestinian cause is hardwired into the Brotherhood’s origins; its emotional ties with Hamas are real. But the Brotherhood-sponsored Freedom and Justice Party is preparing to take up positions in political authority in a state that has treaty obligations and seeks the support of a society that, while hardly sympathetic to Israel in any way, has no appetite for war.
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