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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: Longtime Outsiders as New Establishment?

  • Elizabeth Arrott

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party candidate Amr Zaki, left, is speaking to Cairo residents, November 26, 2011.

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party candidate Amr Zaki, left, is speaking to Cairo residents, November 26, 2011.

The Muslim Brotherhood is considered likely to be the biggest beneficiary of Egypt's first post-revolution elections - a nationwide vote for parliament that begins Monday. But the Brotherhood has an image problem: it is considered too radical by some abroad, and too accommodating by some at home.

If it is a politician's goal to appeal to the widest base, then Muslim Brotherhood candidate Amr Zaki is very good at his job. His core issue, unsurprisingly, is Islam - Islam as the center of all things political, economic and social.

Encompassing society

"It's all encompassing", he repeats to the crowd gathered in this working-class Cairo district - Islam is all encompassing. But the man some fear represents a step backward for women and religious minorities shares the stage at this rally with a female community organizer and a neighborhood Christian priest.

"Your church," he tells the priest in welcome, "is valued by us as much as our mosques." And as a counterpoint to Western fears of an Islamist ascendancy after the Arab Spring, Zaki switches to English with a message of pragmatism for the foreign media in the front row.

"In first priority, in our proceedings in party, how we can build, how we can build the Egyptian people," he says.

Zaki, an urban planner with business interests abroad, combines what many people here in Egypt seem to want: middle-class prosperity - he outlines housing developments, industrial centers, new hospitals - while retaining a deep religious faith. It's an accommodating stance that appeals to many in the voting district - a warren of crowded, narrow streets where children run with abandon and a goat wanders, looking for a meal.

"They are very moderate and they can accept all the currents and they can accept all the groups of the society, OK? And they have a very good program," said Wael Lofti, an English teacher and Brotherhood supporter.

Track record

The question is, will they stay that way? Long-time dissident and political analyst Hisham Kassem says most political forces don't think so.

"In the past, Mubarak's opposition, where I come from, did not trust the Brotherhood because of their track record of reneging on deals," said Kassem. "Once they are in a position of power, their discourse changes completely, and their attitude in negotiations."

The accusation of opportunism has cropped up again in recent days in the Brotherhood's dealings with the ruling military council, some say at the expense of its opponents on Tahrir Square. It's a charge Zaki dismisses.

"There is no relation between us and the army," said Zaki. "This is not true."

And while the Brotherhood has been largely missing from the latest round of demonstrations, Zaki expresses support for the protesters.

"I first give a good attention and appreciate their efforts in Tahrir," he said. "And they understand the Muslim Brothers is going to put the effort in the right direction."

Election performance

Analyst and publisher Kassem says that with all its promises, the Brotherhood has stretched itself too thin.

"I don't think the Brotherhood will have a very impressive performance in the elections,"he said. "I think they'll end up with more seats as a party, but not enough to form a government, and nobody will enter a coalition with them."

But on one thing both Kassem and Zaki agree: elections are the only way forward.

"The election is a good chance for our country," said Zaki. "We need to proceed with it, to finalize it. We need to proceed to press this part of our history."

Whatever the Brotherhood's future direction, for this election, Zaki has embraced the spirit of the process.