The Islamist opposition has vowed to “respect the will of the Egyptian people” if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime falls, amid concern from Western leaders that religious extremism might proliferate following the anti-government uprising.
On Monday, former British prime minister Tony Blair, the Middle East peace envoy, warned that Egypt might take a backward step “into a very reactionary form of religious autocracy,” but his words carried limited resonance in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood — the country’s largest opposition force — has played little more than a walk-on role in the unprecedented protests.
“There is widespread exaggeration about the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian society and I think these demonstrations have exposed that,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Egypt’s political Islamists at Durham University in northeast England.
Egypt’s ongoing uprising has been largely leaderless, planned initially by secular online activist groups and quickly gathering a momentum of its own, as protesters managed to beat riot police off the streets and inspire belief that Mubarak’s security forces could be overcome.
“Like many others, I participated in these protests not as a Brotherhood member, but as an Egyptian, even though both labels apply to me,” said Mohamed al-Assas, a 35-year-old media production worker in Cairo. “Many of the older political leaders, not just of the Brotherhood, but of other formal parties as well, were not so enthusiastic about the demonstrations, but that doesn’t matter because this is a youth revolution — we don’t need leaders to tell us what to do.”
The group was formed in 1928 and is still officially outlawed. Hundreds of Brotherhood members have been jailed in periodic crackdowns, yet it is from the existence of the Brotherhood, and the regime’s perceived ability to suppress it, that Mubarak has derived much of his legitimacy in international circles.
“The Mubarak regime was adept at inflating the influence of the Brotherhood, and painting them as a threat to Egyptian society and to the West,” Anani said. “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.”
Anani believes the protests have shifted the balance of power within the organization, boosting the influence of younger reformists.
“The revolution has brought us into much closer contact with other secular protest groups with whom we’re working now on a regular basis,” Assas said. “All of Egypt is changing and, of course, the Brotherhood is part of that. Youth is leading the way and leaders are heeding our call.”