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Frontline Examines Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Strong, Layered’ Role in Egypt

February 22, 2011 at 6:39 PM EST
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The Muslim Brotherhood, long banned in Egypt and framed by ousted President Mubarak as an extremist group, is shaping its role in post-Mubarak Egypt. The NewsHour has an excerpt of a segment that airs Tuesday night on Frontline, and then Jeffrey Brown talks with GlobalPost's Charles Sennott, who reported the story.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s revolution, and the power it could wield in post-Mubarak Egypt.

We begin with an excerpt from tonight’s edition of “Frontline,” reported from Cairo by Charles Sennott, editor of the international news website GlobalPost.

CHARLES SENNOTT, GlobalPost: Egypt’s revolution may have been ignited by young secular activists, but there was another powerful force at work behind the scenes of the uprising: the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Day 11, they opened this prayer rally on Tahrir Square with a moment of silence for those who died the previous day in battles with pro-Mubarak vigilantes.

MAN (through translator): God is great.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Many of the fallen were Muslim Brothers.

Afterwards, they were all praised for their perseverance and unity.

MAN (through translator): Your movement has revealed virtues not known to the Western world, Islamic virtues.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Anyone who has covered Egypt for years knows about the Brotherhood’s profound influence on Egyptian society. Coming back at this extraordinary time, I wanted to find out what part they were playing in this revolution.

PROTESTERS (through translator): With liberation comes legitimacy!

PROTESTER (through translator): We will never sell out Egypt!

PROTESTERS (through translator): We will never sell out Egypt!

CHARLES SENNOTT: Hi. Hi. I’m Charles. Nice to meet you.

On Tahrir Square, I found Mohammed Abbas, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing. For the past month, Abbas had been working alongside secular activists from the April 6 movement to help organize the revolt. He was eager to show us what he and his fellow brothers had contributed.

MAN (through translator): We built a barrier by the Omar Makram Mosque, which is one of the entrances to Tahrir Square, and another one at the Kasr Al Nile Bridge.

CHARLES SENNOTT: It wasn’t until three days into the protests that the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leadership officially threw their weight behind the revolt. Now the Brothers were running the security checkpoints, serving hot tea, distributing blankets, printing posters and running an emergency health clinic.

They call themselves the Brothers, in Arabic, the Ikhwan, and they have decades of experience providing social services to Egypt’s poor. They became key to holding the revolution’s infrastructure together.

MAN: We have the ability, and a good ability, to organize.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Yes, definitely.

MAN: We are — we are the best in Egypt to organize.

AMR HAMZAWY, Carnegie Middle East Center: The organization of the space is in the Brotherhood’s hands.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Amr Hamzawy is an expert on Arab political movements.

AMR HAMZAWY: And it’s from the garbage collection, teacups and so on and so forth. It’s even the one microphone or the two microphones which we have to address the crowd. They are owned by the Muslim Brotherhood, which isn’t attached to the strong organizational skills of the movement. Not only that — in fact, those who defended the demonstrators on Tuesday and Wednesday were Ikhwan members in Tahrir against thugs of the Egyptian regime.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Our camera caught this firsthand, as crowds of pro-Mubarak demonstrators arrived at the edges of Tahrir Square. Soon, fights broke out.

CROWD (through translator): God is great! God is great!

CHARLES SENNOTT: When things turned violent, it was young Muslim Brothers who pushed the regime supporters back.

MAN (through translator): Long live Egypt! Long live Egypt! Long live Egypt!

JEFFREY BROWN: Charles Sennott is back from Cairo and joins us now from Boston.

Charlie, to help us understand the organization a bit more, who makes up the Brotherhood these days, and what does that mean in terms of what kind of organization it is now?

CHARLES SENNOTT: The Muslim Brotherhood is 600,000 dues-paying members. They really cut a pretty wide swathe across the demography of Egypt.

They are from largely lower- and middle-class neighborhoods, but there is also a professional class that controls the syndicates. And they’re doctors and engineers and lawyers. So, this is really a very strong movement within Egyptian society and one that is very layered.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it operated for decades as a kind of band organization, but tolerated at times, right? They fielded some candidates in 2005. Tell us — give us a little bit of background here.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Sure.

I mean, they were founded in 1928. So, it’s a very long history. They have their ups and their downs. They are largely a movement that has been banned and operated underground in recent decades.

But in 2005, after President Bush called for more fair elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood fielded independent candidates. They were still a banned party. They took 20 percent of the Parliament in 2005. And then the Mubarak regime worked very hard to push them back down.

They disrupted a lot of their social service networks, clinics and schools, and really pushed the movement down, so that it wouldn’t challenge them in opposition. And in 2010, they boycotted those elections. But they stand poised in the future of Egypt to be quite a powerful force.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so that of course is the big question, right, is what role they will play in a post-Mubarak Egypt. And it sounds as though you heard different possibilities even from people within the Brotherhood.

CHARLES SENNOTT: I did. They’re sending very conflicted messages right now.

On the one hand, they feel very confident about their role. On the other hand, they’re not going to field a presidential candidate. And they made that very clear, that in this first election in the new Egypt, there will not be a Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president. They will focus on the parliamentary elections.

They have announced that they will form a political party, so they will be official but that they are not trying to sort of take over this revolution, as they would put it. They’re really sort of in the long game here.

They are very clear about their goal, which is, they want to change Egyptian society to be more Islamic. And they will do that both through government but also through a social movement, which is also a very big part of understanding the Muslim Brotherhood.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, clear about the goal, but you’re saying still some confusion or mixed messages about — about exactly what that means politically, right?

CHARLES SENNOTT: That’s right, I mean, clear about their goals socially, to change Egypt, to make it more Islamic, but different messages coming from the higher-ups, you know, sort of the old guard within the Muslim Brotherhood, and a division with a newer, younger part of the movement that really exerted its leadership in Tahrir Square.

And I think that division between the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood and this new guard that emerged in Tahrir Square over the 18 days of the revolution is really something to watch.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, Charlie, one thing that jumped out at me in watching this is — is, the Brotherhood seemed to have a real interest in how people in the U.S. and the West view them.

CHARLES SENNOTT: That’s right.

I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood is very aware that the Mubarak regime for years has tried to paint them in a very negative light. Mubarak often sort of raised the specter that it was either him and stability or chaos and the Muslim Brotherhood.

You know, a lot of people in Egypt are rejecting that dichotomy. And I think the Muslim Brotherhood is aware of this need for them to redefine themselves and to say they’re moderate Islam, they want to be a part of the future of Egypt. And I think there’s a sense that they want really the West, as well as Egypt, to take another look at them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the documentary “Revolution in Cairo” is on “Frontline” tonight.

Charles Sennott, thanks a lot.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Thank you.