By Dina Zayed/Reuters
CAIRO: In the weeks after Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Egyptian television channels reveled in their new freedoms by giving airtime to the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, offering them an open platform to speak.
Members of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organized political group, are still regular guests. But the tone has changed. Soft-ball questioning has given way to rigorous interrogation about their plans and criticism of their public statements.
“You are not the guardians of the faith alone. No one gave you such a power,” writer Khaled Montasser told one Brotherhood member and former member of parliament, Sobhi Saleh.
The rebuke on a popular talk show in June followed a statement by Saleh, who was on the drafting committee of constitutional amendments, that it would do well in a September parliamentary election as its members were “God’s guardians.”
In spite of such criticism, the well-organized Brotherhood is still expected to do better than rivals in the vote. Although banned under Mubarak, it was left enough space to build up a grassroots networks through its medical and charity work.
But just how well it will do is less clear. It may have a head start on others in post-Mubarak Egypt but it now faces much deeper scrutiny about its plans and is struggling to control an internal debate about how to compete in upcoming polls.
“They have organizational and financial abilities. But there is a growing sentiment among a wide strata of Egypt’s society fearing the rise of the Brotherhood to power,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
The Brotherhood, long used to policy-making behind closed doors, has not always shown a united front since Mubarak was toppled on Feb. 11. It has sometimes been clumsy in explaining decisions and has alienated alliance partners, analysts say.
Critics point to public U-turns or contradictions in policy.
Senior Brotherhood officials have long said the Brotherhood was committed to a “civil state” based on Islamic principles. But some Egyptians have been alarmed when Brotherhood officials have referred to an “Islamic state” or “Islamic government” or other terms suggesting the full imposition of sharia law.
The Brotherhood has played down such comments, often saying they have been taken out of context and saying such criticisms are part of a media campaign to vilify the group.
‘Anyone but them’
Shortly after Mubarak left office, the group said it would seek one third of the seats in parliament. In April, it said it would contest half without explaining the shift.
“I was willing to give the Brotherhood a chance after the revolution, but the more I hear them talking, the more I decide I will vote for anyone but them,” said Ghadeer Al-Bolkiny, 23, who like many Egyptian women covers her head.
The media has become more critical. Some commentators have accused the Brotherhood of putting its agenda above Egypt’s.
“The Brotherhood can only see the Brotherhood and nothing else and their calculations are always first and foremost concerned only with the Brotherhood,” Wahid Hamid, who penned a script for a critical television drama on the group last year, said in a column in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
Under Mubarak, the group’s best election result was in the 2005 parliament polls, when it won 20 percent of seats. While its performance was capped by widespread rigging, it benefited from votes cast in protest at Mubarak’s ruling party.
It ran candidates as independents to skirt a ban.
The group was the most organized during Mubarak’s rule. But now new political parties are springing up each week.
A study by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, showed nine out of 10 Egyptians surveyed planned on voting in elections. But the Brotherhood won the support of just 15 percent of respondents.
A majority of Egyptians in polls by Gallup and other centers show a desire for Islam to play a role in politics. But the polls also show mainstream opinion rejects a theocracy.
Even within the Brotherhood, there are a broad range of views, straining its leadership’s ability to show unity.
The Brotherhood has set up the Freedom and Justice Party to run in the September election. But some members of the group have lined up with other parties or even formed their own.
Responding to this split in the ranks, Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein said in June that members who joined other parties would be forced to leave the Brotherhood, a move that has rankled some particularly among younger members.
“This is not a Brotherhood decision because it was not widely discussed. Such comments are not useful at this time because we need political flexibility and space to function in the new system,” Mohamed Al-Qassas, a youth Brotherhood member who helped form the so-called Egyptian Current party, said.
The group, which has said it will not seek the presidency, has also expelled Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior member who said he would run for president.
“This certainly shows the divisions among the Muslim Brotherhood,” said political scientist Moustafa El-Sayyed.
Beyond such internal squabbles, Brotherhood leaders have irked many among Egypt’s youth movement when they took to the streets to oust Mubarak. They accuse the Islamist group of trying to hijack the uprising.
The Brotherhood, which bore the brunt of Mubarak’s crackdown on the opposition, took a backseat in the early days of the revolt that erupted on Jan. 25, wary of being crushed. It was not till a few days later that the group rallied its members.
Since then it has annoyed activists for what they say was the group’s effort to undermine a protest on May 27 billed as a “second revolution.” It was called to ensure the ruling army council worked faster to dismantle the old order of Mubarak and moved more swiftly to try former officials for corruption.
After telling Brotherhood supporters not to turn up, the group published a picture on its website purportedly showing an empty Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the uprising, on protest day. Yet thousands had packed the area during the day.
That story was later removed and the website editor quit.
“That is how the Brotherhood worked to destroy the state of unity that engulfed the Egyptian people, raising its sword and striking the revolution with it,” Hamid wrote in his column.
A Facebook poll after the May 27 protest drew about 21,000 people and showed 53 percent of respondents saying they believed the Brotherhood “betrayed the revolution for personal agendas.”
Some Brotherhood members who had joined the Youth Revolution Coalition movement took part on the May 27 protest. But the Brotherhood issued a statement saying it had no representatives in the coalition, apparently seeking to sideline them.
“The Muslim Brotherhood faces a huge dilemma,” wrote Ziad El-Elemi from the coalition in Al-Masry Al-Youm daily.
“It must either follow those youth and become part of the fabric of the national Egyptian movement or the group can choose to close in on itself and eliminate nationalists from its ranks,” Elemi wrote. –Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh