What Is Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood?

The protesters on Cairo streets include members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in the 1920s to fight the British who controlled Egypt. It once included a paramilitary wing. The banned group has renounced violence, but remains the country's biggest opposition party. Tarek Masoud, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, talks to Steve Inskeep about the group.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The protesters on Cairo's streets this week, include members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in the 1920s to fight the British who controlled Egypt back then. It once had a paramilitary wing. Today, this banned group has renounced violence but remains the biggest opposition party.

Tarek Masoud, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has been studying the group. He's on the line.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Professor TAREK MASOUD (Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Thank you.

INSKEEP: What kind of government does the Muslim Brotherhood stand for?

Prof. MASOUD: I think the Muslim Brotherhood stands for, at the current time, a democratic government. They want a change in the Mubarak regime, into one that is more open, that will allow them and other groups to participate freely in political life now.

INSKEEP: Meaning that they're not standing for a theocracy, but for a democracy, which would be a different deal.

Prof. MASOUD: Well, they certainly don't stand for a theocracy; that is the rule of clerics, if we go by the definition of theocracy. They've been declaring for quite a while that they're in favor of a democratic, civil state.

Now, if they got into power, if they got into parliament, they'd try to make some laws that conform with their vision of what Islam requires. But they would not try to have the clerics be in charge.

INSKEEP: There are no opposition parties, of course, that have been allowed to really prosper in recent years, but why is this party of all the parties, officially banned in Egypt?

Mr. MASOUD: This party has actually been banned for a very long time. It's actually officially been banned since 1948. You know, as you mentioned, the group was founded in 1928. It's kind of a religious revivalist organization, but it had a very strong anti-British focus as well. And by 1948 they'd become too troublesome, and so they were banned. Then, you know, the secret apparatus of the brotherhood, which is a kind of paramilitary wing, you know, they assassinated the prime minister in 1948, and then the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was assassinated in 1949, but - so they - there's always been this feeling that this is kind of a violent group. When Nasser come to power in 1952 there was a little bit of an alliance with the brotherhood, but that ended in 1954 and the brothers were in prison until 1970.

INSKEEP: Nasser being, of course, a secular leader who is just basically part of the chain of leaders still in control.

Mr. MASOUD: Right, and so there's always been this fear that the brothers, if you let them loose and allowed them to really participate in politics, that they'd somehow take over, that they also still have this violent tendency. So no regime, even Sadat who succeeded Nasser and who was a little bit accommodating towards the brothers, never wanted to legalize that.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask - I want to play a piece of tape here if I can. This is Mohamed ElBaradei, who was the most prominent among the opposition leaders at the moment, and he was asked on ABC in recent days if people should be concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and their role in the protests.

Mr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (Egyptian law scholar and politician): This is total bogus, that Muslim Brotherhoods are religiously conservative. They are in no way extremists. They are in no way using violence. They are not the majority of the Egyptian people. They will not be more than maybe 20 percent of the Egyptian people. You have to include them like, you know, you have evangelical groups in the U.S., like you have the Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: OK. Is that a fair comparison, Tarek Masoud? Are they just a conservative party or are they something more now?

Dr. MASOUD: Well, there's two kinds of extremism. OK, there's an extremism of ends and an extremism of means. OK. Extremism of means is if they're willing -if they want to use violence to get what they want. I certainly think they are not that. Extremism of ends, do they want things that we think are really, you know, out of the norm? I think a lot of them do, but again, you know, you let them participate in the political process and you hopefully beat them. I think - and there's evidence that the brothers, as Dr. ElBaradei said, would not necessarily capture a majority of votes in Egypt, although they are a very strong and organized party. But, you know, there's other ideological trends and we're seeing them being played out right now on the Egyptian street.

INSKEEP: In just a few seconds, Tarek Masoud, can you imagine the Muslim Brotherhood cooperating with other opposition parties to rule Egypt in the way that they seem to be cooperating with other opposition parties on the streets today.

Mr. MASOUD: The Muslim Brotherhood is actually cooperated with other opposition parties at other moments in the past. And so, you could imagine that all opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, could come together to try to put together say a national unity government or a national unified list to run in maybe upcoming Parliament elections. So sure, I don't think there's any barrier to the Muslim Brotherhood cooperating. And that's the interesting thing, is that people always told us that...

INSKEEP: Right.

Mr. MASOUD: ...secularists didn't want the Muslim Brothers, and now we see secularists participating in joining with the Muslim Brothers.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much Tarek Masoud of Kennedy's Harvard School of government.

This is NPR News.

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