Muslim Brotherhood says it is only a minor player in Egyptian protests

Cairo, January 31: The Muslim Brotherhood found its first martyr in Egypt’s popular uprising Friday, when a teenager named Mustafa Sawi was shot dead in front of the Interior Ministry. But the country’s oldest and best-organized opposition group had to take a back seat at his public funeral the next day, as the Muslim Brotherhood insists it is little more than a bit player in the outpouring of resistance to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

“This is on purpose,” Mohammed Mahdi Akef, who retired last year as leader of the group at the age of 82, said Sunday. “We want to be part of the fabric of society.”

But as Egyptian society begins to weave a whole new cloth, the Muslim Brotherhood, alternately used and demonized by Mubarak over the years, has been slow to contribute. An organization dedicated to the creation of a more thoroughly Islamic Egyptian state, and still technically illegal here, the 83-year-old group has been weakened by a generational divide and overtaken by the protests that broke out with little warning here last week.

The Muslim Brotherhood is still capable of provoking alarm here. Last week, as the protests gathered steam, many of its senior members were rounded up and put in prison.

Individual members have been active in the demonstrations, but like other political groups here the organization has refrained from waving its banners or promoting itself during the protests. At Sawi’s funeral procession, which wound through central Tahrir Square on Saturday, there was no visible evidence of his membership.

“The moment is bigger than any individual force or actor,” Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Sunday. “The Brothers have been effectively sidelined.”

The outpouring of so many different elements of society in the demonstrations has to have taught the Muslim Brotherhood a lesson, he said. “They must realize now that there’s no way they represent the majority.”

Inspired by the YMCA when it was founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has been under a ban since 1948, and its real size is difficult to gauge. The group was brutally repressed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, it has at times been propped up as a foil – especially for Western audiences – with periodic crackdowns that have sent many of its members to prison.

Akef, sentenced to death in 1954, served 20 years in prison before emerging as a leader of the group.

For most of its existence in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has refrained from violence against the state. It is not the organization of radical jihadists that it is sometimes made out to be. But its caution in dealing with Mubarak has made it appear recently that it is more concerned with protecting itself than with improving the nation.

“If we had led, they would have massacred us,” Akef said. “All we want is freedom for all the people. Freedom would give us space for movement.”

It would, he said, enable the Muslim Brotherhood to push effectively for more proper Islamic education and training, so Egyptians would be able to “stand up to the American-Zionist project.”