There is such a huge flow of news here in Cairo these days that Salah Abdullah, an Egyptian carpenter in his 30s, says he is not able to keep track of everything.
However, in the midst of all the coverage following the series of massive demonstrations against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the growing presence of Islamists among the anti-Mubarak demonstrators has caused alarm among Egyptians like Abdullah.
“Can they really rule Egypt one day?” he asked. “This will be catastrophic.”
Abdullah’s fear was reverberating strongly among Egypt’s intellectual circles earlier this week, as the demonstrators refused to leave Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the 11th day in a row.
Seeing the protests, which began Jan. 25, rock Egypt and weaken Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981, Egypt’s secularists, leftists, liberals, Christians and even some observant Muslims are gripped by fear at the prospect that their country might fall into the hands of the fundamental Islamist group know as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Adel Hamouda, a leading Egyptian political analyst, called the Muslim Brotherhood “the only political movement capable of action at the present time, particularly as Mubarak reaches his weakest point.”
The Brotherhood, which began as an educational charity movement in 1927 and keeps flashing the “Islam is the solution” slogan, has had a fluctuating relationship with successive Egyptian regimes since Gamal Abdel Nasser enlisted their help in ousting King Farouk in the Egyptian revolution of 1952.
Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood has suffered a complete political siege at times and superficial freedoms at others. Thousands of its members and affiliates have been sent to jail at times.
“Mubarak has given none of this country’s political powers any chance for political freedom,” said Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a prominent Brotherhood leader. “He has failed to present Egypt’s political powers with any practical solutions,” he added.
Perhaps Aboul Fotouh and his colleagues in the Brotherhood, who tend to be highly educated Egyptians who permeate the nation’s professional unions, mosques, and universities and whose utmost goal is to apply Shariah (Islamic law) in Egypt, see in Mubarak’s potential ouster one of these practical solutions.
As soon as Egypt’s security system showed signs of crumbling at the outset of the Jan. 25 demonstrations, the organization started to deploy tens of thousands of its members and sympathizers to protest centers so that they could make their presence strongly felt.
This has worried ordinary Egyptians like Abdullah. He expressed fears that the Islamists will hijack the revolution, which was started by the poor, the afflicted and the politically un-affiliated, but has evolved into a show of anger by all Egyptians against the corruption and the economic and political failure of Mubarak’s ruling party.
“These people want to take Egypt hundreds of years back,” Abdullah said. “If they reach the presidency, they will turn our life into mere hell.” Abdullah prays five times a day like all observant Muslims. He reads the Quran and pays alms, but finds the seeds of his fear in the platform the Muslim Brotherhood announced four years ago, when it applied for a political party license.
In that platform, the Brotherhood says it believes Egypt’s presidency should be a no-go area for both women and Christians, a reason that women might not welcome a Brotherhood rule.
More important still, Egypt’s Christians, which make up about 10 percent of the 80 million population, seem to also shudder at the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Some Christians have said that if the Brotherhood comes to power, they will be in for yet more persecution.
“This is a very sensitive issue for us,” said Fayez Girgis, an Egyptian Coptic Christian in his late 40s. “An Islamist rule in Egypt will naturally curb religious freedoms.”
Aboul Fotouh and other group members, however, are quick to reassure Girgis and fellow Christians that they have nothing to fear.
“The Brotherhood believes in citizenship rights,” Aboul Fotouh said. “This means that men, women, Muslims and Christians are all equal,” he added.
But the organization’s political manifesto, which does not mention the word equality, sends fear down the spines of Egyptians even more as they see the Brotherhood gaining recognition within the faltering regime of Hosni Mubarak and his newly formed government.
Newly named Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman met with the Brotherhood on Sunday to discuss a way out of the current political stalemate, which has cost Egypt billions of dollars in losses to date.
This despite the fact that diplomatic cables leaked over the weekend reveal Suleiman has long demonized the Brotherhood, according to media reports.
Those who have seen the confident discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past few days predict that a scenario like the Islamic revolution that took over Iran might grip Egypt if Mubarak leaves. They see the Brotherhood as a strong force able to turn the situation in their favor. In a recent interview on ABC, Mubarak himself said that he does not want to resign, out of fear that Egypt should fall in the hands of the Islamists.
In 2005, the Brotherhood won one-fifth of the seats of the Egyptian parliament. However, in the last parliamentary elections, held in Egypt late last year, the group won only one seat, casting doubts about its popularity on Egypt’s streets. Election monitoring groups, however, said the vote had been rigged among almost all constituencies by the National Democratic Party, leaving questions as to the extent of the group’s standing.
Nevertheless, some observers see the Brotherhood as close to reaping the fruits of the current Egyptian revolution. They see the Brotherhood’s ability to offer a political message and lead the action against Mubarak, and expect it will take a strong role in Egypt’s future.
“There’s no reason why the Brotherhood shouldn’t fight to reach power in Mubarak’s absence,” the analyst Hamouda said. “The only solution is for Egyptians to join the demonstrations in large numbers, so that the Brotherhood will be a minority,” he added.
To Abdullah, this is a practical solution. He recalls a Brotherhood legislator who was selective in whom he would help, once elected.
“He didn’t offer any help to other constituents who were not members of the Brotherhood,” he said. “They are a mere group of discriminative beings,” he added.
Abdullah is not a Mubarak admirer. But like millions in this country, he still thinks the octogenarian president’s biggest achievement has been his ability to preserve the peace with Israel over his 30 years of rule.
Egypt has fought four wars against Israel — in 1948, ’56, ’67 and ’73 — and many fear that peace might end if Mubarak is ousted.
In an interview with a foreign journalist a few years ago, former Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef said that if the Brotherhood were to come to power in Egypt, it would put the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979 to a public referendum.
“If the people say ‘yes’ to the treaty, we will abide by it,” Akef said. “If they say ‘no,’ we will have no obligation to abide by it,” he said.
Aboul Fotouh himself says he believes most of Egypt’s political powers oppose the peace with Israel. Despite this, he said the Brotherhood, which has links with the Palestinian resistance movement of Hamas, will respect international treaties.
“International treaties must be respected,” he said. “They are agreements among countries, not among governments or regimes, and this is why everybody must be committed to them,” he said.