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One of the most organized opposition groups in Egypt had little to do with the uprising that led to a revolution there. The Muslim Brotherhood held back until the protests got going and never tried to actually lead them. Still, everyone is wondering now what role the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood will play in the new Egypt.
The question worries some in the United States, Israel and other countries in the Middle East. They fear the group will do in Egypt what Muslim clerics did in Iran after protesters ousted the late Shah: turn Egypt into an Islamist state.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
(Soundbite of protest)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: That Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is a force to be reckoned with was evident in the northern port city of Alexandria earlier this month. The group's leaders called on thousands of supporters to pour into the streets day after day to keep up pressure on President Mubarak and his regime. The Brotherhood's skill at mobilizing worried Egyptian security officials enough to round up its leaders the week before.
Among those arrested was Sobhi Saleh of Alexandria, a former lawmaker who headed a parliamentary bloc aligned with the banned movement.
(Soundbite of protest)
NELSON: Supporters freed Saleh from an area prison and he soon was out protesting again.
Mr. SOBHI SALEH (Former Egyptian Lawmaker): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Saleh calls the Brotherhood the most powerful force among the Egyptian people. But he and other leaders hasten to add that they will make no grab for power in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Whether those statements are true or not, the Brotherhood can't be ignored. It claims some 600,000 members, and even as a banned movement it managed to win one in five seats in parliament during the 2005 elections.
Former President Mubarak has used the group's sometimes violent past to justify a stifling state of emergency law that has been in place for 30 years. But many analysts say the Brotherhood itself is a moderate Islamic political and social movement that is fiercely nationalistic and engages in philanthropy. It appeals largely to Egypt's urban professionals and the middle class.
Khaled Fahmy chairs the history department of the American University in Cairo.
Professor KHALED FAHMY (American University, Cairo): Most of the leaders of the Brotherhood are themselves well educated. They are professionals - doctors and physicians and pharmacists and engineers and they talk to their peers.
NELSON: He and many other Egyptians interviewed for this story believe the Brotherhood has as much right as anyone here to help shape their country's future, as long as it doesn't try and take over. Brotherhood officials say they have no such plans.
Mr. MOHAMMED MURSI (Spokesman, Muslim Brotherhood): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: At a news conference last week, spokesman Mohammed Mursi said the Brotherhood will not run a presidential candidate in any upcoming elections and wants nothing more than to, quote, "collaborate" in creating a new Egypt. And while Brotherhood supporters joined the protests, the group took no leadership role in the uprising that swept Mubarak from power.
Reached in London, Middle East analyst Fawaz Gerges says that the Brotherhood's passive approach is not surprising.
Mr. FAWAZ GERGES (Middle East Analyst): They are trying to position themselves as a centrist, mainstream force as opposed to a radical and militant force.
NELSON: Gerges says the Brotherhood is also eager to avoid provoking Egypt's military government into a crackdown.
Mr. GERGES: Because they realize if they mobilize their followers, if they try to go unilateral, they might end up with the Algerian model of the 1990s when the Islamists won an outright victory and that particular victory basically led to a civil war between the Islamists on the one hand and the army.
NELSON: That doesn't mean the Brotherhood will give up its quest for a more Islamic Egypt, says historian Khaled Fahmy.
Prof. FAHMY: They are a very important player, and again, as long as they agree on the principle of equality and the principle of the rule of law, I think they should be included in the political discussion of the future of Egypt.
NELSON: But blogger Gigi Ibrahim, who is part of the youth movement that helped bring down Mubarak, is more skeptical.
Ms. GIGI IBRAHIM: They've been created to scare us from democracy. And now that they we have democracy, it will be interesting of who they really are.
NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.
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