Muslim Brotherhood Plays Key Role In Egypt Unrest

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, speaks to host Robert Siegel about the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups in Egypt.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

So, we're hearing of plans not only to continue the protests in Egypt, but also to create a more defined leadership for the movement, which may not be so simple. From Mohamed ElBaradei to young students to long-time members of the Muslim Brotherhood, we are seeing a wide range of Egyptian society out on the streets.

And joining us to talk more about that is Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. He's a former CIA officer who has advised several presidents on issues in the Middle East. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: And, first, let's talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. It is officially banned in Egypt and it's one of the longest lasting and best organized groups to oppose the regime. But it hasn't appeared to be a big player in this protest. Is that a measure of its importance? Or is is a tactical low profile:

Mr. RIEDEL: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and the strongest and the best organized opposition group in Egypt. But it also knows that it has been used by the Mubarak regime for 30 years to demonize the opposition and to paint it as Islamic terrorists.

So I think the Muslim Brotherhood in this current round of unrest has played it very cleverly, letting others be out front even as it helps to organize these demonstrations. I think what we saw at the end of last week, particularly on Friday, is that when the Muslim Brotherhood does give the instructions to get people out, you see much, much larger crowd than you had up until that moment.

In any future Democratic government in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to play an important role. We shouldn't be terrified by that, but we should be aware that that's going to be the outcome.

SIEGEL: Do you believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, would be committed to a Democratic system in which it might at some point gain power but at a later point lose power?

Mr. RIEDEL: You know, the honest truth is that no one knows how the Muslim Brotherhood will behave if the dynamics of the situation aren't changed. This has been a party that's been in opposition under severe repression for half a century since Egypt had its revolution in 1952. But what we have seen over the last 20 years or so is a party that has shooed violent, has agreed to play by the rules and has said that it's not interested in trying to impose its narrow view of Islam on the entire society.

But rather, trying to make sure that Egypt moves in the direction of Islamic politics. It's tried to paint itself much as the ruling party in Turkey has behaved in the last several years.

SIEGEL: What do you make of this enormous alliance out in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities? Are there obvious issues that divide the generations in Egypt, say, between these young people in their early 20s and older people whom we see taking part?

Mr. RIEDEL: Well, what you have seen in Egypt and what you saw before that in Tunisia is an earthquake in the Arab world. We have never the Arab street topple a dictator. That happened first in Tunis and it increasingly looks like it's going to happen in Cairo. The alliance that has done that is across the board. But at the heart of it are angry young men unemployed or underemployed with very little prospect of a stable, serious job in their future.

One of the biggest challenges here, of course, is going to be the day after. How does the new Egyptian government actually get employment for all of those people? How do they make the economic system work so that those people now really have a stake in society?

No one has any really good answers to those. So, assuming we do transition to more Democratic regimes, they're going to face enormous challenges trying to address the socioeconomic problems that brought them into power in the first place.

SIEGEL: How do you see Mohamed ElBaradei in all of this? Is he simply a symbol of the nation who is - around whom people can gather momentarily or is he an enduring figure, do you think, in the next chapter of Egypt's life?

Mr. RIEDEL: Mohamed ElBaradei could be a very important figure here. We need a figure who can be a transitional leader that's not tainted by association with the Mubarak era and who a wide spectrum of the Egyptian opposition is at least willing to trust to be their titular leader.

Mohamed ElBaradei also is a voice that the West knows, that the international community knows. He can provide that transition, that stabilizing element through what is going to be a very confusing time.

SIEGEL: Mr. Riedel, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. RIEDEL: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Bruce Riedel, who is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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