The decades-old battle between the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, and Egypt's authoritarian regime has entered its latest phase. This time it's not a matter of prison terms or assassination attempts, but rather the campaign for the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, in two rounds of elections June 1 and 8.
In Giza city, eight miles away from downtown Cairo, the central square is plastered with propaganda from President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, but Brotherhood posters are noticeably absent. "All our signs were removed," says Azab Mursy, the group's local candidate. "The Egyptian regime doesn't want the Muslim Brotherhood to have any presence."
The officially banned but semi-tolerated Islamist group is widely known among all classes of Egyptians and enjoys strong grassroots support. For that reason, it worries the National Democratic Party more than the still nascent campaign of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose appeal is still limited to the liberal elite.
The Brotherhood showed its potential in the 2005 parliamentary election, when its candidates running as independents attained 20 percent of the seats. The regime appears to have stepped up repression in response to that relative success, leading analysts to predict that the Brotherhood may not win any of the 88 seats in the upcoming Shura elections.
But its continued participation in politics despite those efforts underscores an organizational evolution. In the past decade, the Brotherhood has developed from a social group trying to remodel society along Islamic lines to a semi-political entity, and that change has created tension within the ranks over the movement's future.
"Starting in 2004, since [the Brotherhood] announced their reform initiative, they have been talking more about political reform and social and economic issues and less about moral issues, Shariah applications, which was at the forefront of their activism in the 1980s and 1990s," says Amr Hamzawy, senior associate of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
In fact the group has been evolving since it was founded in 1928 by Hassan el-Banna, an elementary school teacher. El-Banna believed a return to Islamic tenets would cure social ills, but he embraced a militant stance as well. Under his guidance, the Brotherhood established a paramilitary group to train volunteers to fight in Palestine and carry out political assassinations domestically.
After a failed assassination attempt on then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, the organization was banned and many of its leaders sentenced to death. For years since, the movement has been subject to mass arrests and detentions. Radical members dot the movement's history, most notably Sayyid Qutb, whose radical prison treatises promoting armed revolt inspired radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaida.
The organization renounced violence in the 1970s, and that vow appears to be holding. "The Brotherhood is seriously and strategically committed to nonviolence," says Nathan Brown, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "This has been sustained, at this point, really over a generation and it's been sustained in the face of fairly harsh repression. So this is an organization that if they were going to turn to violence would have done so by now."
Members stress the group will continue to "struggle peacefully" for change.
Today, the Brotherhood maintains a buzzing central headquarters, issues press releases on its website and has a dedicated group of professional politicians vying for parliamentary seats, like Mursy in Giza, who has been a member of the People's Assembly since 2000. "We have a group of politicians, an elite of sorts, which has emerged to compete with preachers, with those who are immersed in social and religious activism," says Hamzawy of Carnegie.
But internal elections for the group's governing guidance bureau in December 2009, and the election of the group's new supreme guide, Mohammad Badei, in January, illustrated competing internal designs for the group's future. More liberal members were ousted from the council in favor of conservatives with a history of religious outreach, including Badei.
As a result, many onlookers see the Brotherhood turning away from political participation and waiting out the regime's repressive tactics while refocusing on social and religious outreach. But Brotherhood members say the die has been cast for continued political engagement.
"This matter of going inwards instead of outwards, all these ideas are wrong," says Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a leading Brotherhood reformer who lost his seat in the guidance bureau elections in December. "The group is still doing everything regularly, entering the Shura Council elections, we are preparing for the People's Assembly." Elections for the Egypt's lower house are scheduled for November. Analysts foresee the Brotherhood running fewer candidates and gaining fewer seats in the People's Assembly due to government repression.
But inside the Brotherhood's flurried headquarters, phones ring off the hook. The Brotherhood is running 14 candidates in the Shura elections. "We hope that we can win half of them," says Essam El-Erian, a Brotherhood spokesman.
And yet on Giza's streets, it is widely acknowledged that the chances of a Brotherhood victory are slim.
"Our main goal in candidacy is not just to win," candidate Mursy says. "There are many goals for our candidacy ... getting closer to the people, raising people's awareness of our program, advocacy so that people would be more positive and try to take part, exposing the regime's corruption. ... As for winning, it is only one of the goals," he says with a smile. The Brotherhood has played a long game in Egypt, and an electoral setback seems unlikely to shake its appeal.