The influence of Islamists, particularly the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, on the protesters in Egypt is a hotly debated question, with even Israel’s prime minister weighing in. But Babak Dehghanpisheh says it’s not clear they’re behind the unrest. Plus, full coverage of the uprising in Egypt.
Hundreds of men bowed in prayer at sunset Monday evening in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Egypt protests. It’s a routine the devout among the protesters have observed regularly since security forces relinquished control of the square on Friday. A short time later, a speaker stepped up to a makeshift stage and grabbed the bullhorn. “Down, down with Mubarak,” the speaker chanted, and hundreds of protesters repeated it in unison. “Down, down with Israel!” the speaker chanted next, and hundreds of protesters repeated it.
Photos: Egypt Protests
How the unrest in Egypt will affect Israel and, in particular, what kind of influence conservative Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have among the protesters is an issue that has been raised repeatedly by U.S. cable news pundits in recent days. The underlying current of the debate seems to be that there’s a crazed horde of Islamic radicals waiting to take over the country if President Hosni Mubarak steps down. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even weighed in during a press conference Monday. “In a state of chaos, an organized Islamist element can take over countries,” Netanyahu said.
Egypt is a mostly conservative Islamic society, though there are millions of Christian Copts who are part of the population as well. So it’s little surprise that the country’s largest opposition group for years has been the Muslim Brotherhood. “They’re the best-organized opposition group,” says a Western diplomat in Cairo. “They’ve got a significant amount of support.” The Brotherhood surprised many observers inside and outside Egypt when its candidates took roughly 20 percent of the seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
“The plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to spread chaos all over the country,” says Hossam Sowilam, a retired army general.
Mubarak’s supporters saw those elections as a clear sign that radicals are waiting to take over and establish an Islamic state. The regime used the same justification to jail and torture Brotherhood activists over the past 30 years. But the majority of the group’s leadership can hardly be considered radicals: They’re doctors, teachers, and engineers. Their leader, Mohammed Badie, is a trained veterinarian. In a Newsweek interview last November, Badie scoffed at the notion of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt. “[This is] an intentionally inaccurate image,” Badie said. “We want a civilian state with civilian people not religious people.”
Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party apparently weren’t convinced. When the Brotherhood ran in the parliamentary elections last fall—a vote marred by numerous irregularities and allegations of fraud—it took no seats. That shutout didn’t stop the regime’s paranoia, or that of their supporters. Many see the hand of the Brotherhood behind the current unrest. “The plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to spread chaos all over the country,” says Hossam Sowilam, a retired army general. “They want to jump over the regime to impose their own religious hegemony, like Iran, like [Abu Musab] Zarqawi in Iraq. We need to cut the Brotherhood at the roots.”
If the Brotherhood was behind the current wave of unrest, it’s hard to understand why the group didn’t lend its full support to the protests on Jan. 25. Nor is it clear why the Brotherhood would have endorsed Mohamed ElBaradei to negotiate for it if the group wanted to take over power itself. The reality is that the protests in Egypt are driven by opposition groups and figures with a broad range of political views, including some who are critical of Israel and the U.S. for their support of the regime. But there is one point that all the groups can agree on: Mubarak must go. And now that the Egyptian army has ruled out the use of force against protesters, the embattled president may be one step closer to leaving office.
Babak Dehghanpisheh was named Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief in December 2006. He has been covering Iraq regularly for the past five years.