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Up Close and Personal

A look at the Muslim Brotherhood’s plan to win over Egyptian liberals.

The Muslim Brotherhood set up its own cordon in Tahrir Square today. Under the giant makeshift TV screen that broadcast President Hosni Mubarak’s address to the nation a few days ago (a series of white sheets, stitched together and suspended off a building), men linked arms and checked IDs, allowing only journalists into the crammed area. Mohammed El Beltagy, a former member of parliament, had come to speak to the media about the Brotherhood’s position on the continued demonstrations here. With a loudspeaker crackling in the background, he told me about the Brotherhood’s new pledge to steer clear of the next round of presidential elections. “We will share parliamentary elections and local elections, but we withdrew [from the presidential election] for the benefit of our people because the regime has been using the perception from inside and outside that we are looking for power,” he explained.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest organized opposition to the Mubarak regime. Fear that it would take control of the government via the ballot box is assumed to be the primary reason behind America’s reluctance to endorse open elections in Egypt. But the Brotherhood’s role in these protests has been minimal. Initially, it did not throw its full force behind the protesters on January 25, causing some I spoke with to allege that the group was using young people as foot soldiers or test balloons, before coming in from the wings. El Beltagy denied this, telling me Brotherhood supporters have been on the streets since the beginning. “From the start, the Muslim Brotherhood said we will be in the middle [of these protests], not in the front, not behind, supporting the demands of the Egyptian people,” he said.

Some demonstrators told me that the ongoing attempts to get Mubarak out have brought them in closer contact with the Islamist group, and with that has come a new respect for the officially outlawed organization. “I thought they were bad people from watching TV, but then I met them here and I respect them. I didn’t know about them much, but now I do,” Safa Hamis Mohammad said. She’s a mother of two, unemployed, once widowed, once divorced.

The liberal elite that has often supported Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party because it feared the Brotherhood may also be warming to it. “It was the first time we communicated with them. It was great. Their people here are very moderate; they respected others,” Fatma Mossallem, a consultant in her forties with a pierced nose, told me. “We are very different but they were accepting of us and we were accepting of them.” She wasn’t worried about a Brotherhood takeover of Egypt.

Whether or not people’s newfound respect for the Brotherhood will translate into votes on poll day, should more parliamentary elections be held, is not something anyone in Tahrir is thinking about right now. Safa, the unemployed mother, told me that when it comes to voting, just because she learned that the Brotherhood isn’t all evil doesn’t mean she’ll vote for them. Her first priority is to wave a triumphant goodbye to Mubarak. “After that I will think about it,” she told me. “I will think about what will protect Egypt.”

Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

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