I walked into Tahrir Square for the first time on February 9, two days before President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. It felt more like a carnival than a revolution. But, for all the excitement, many of the protesters were nervous. What if President Mubarak, known for his stubbornness, refused to listen and step down? No one really had a plan for ousting Mubarak. At a Muslim Brotherhood press conference later that day, an American reporter asked if the organization had a strategy. Senior leader Mohamed Morsi, struggling to respond, finally came up with we’ll “wait and see.”
I asked the group’s most prominent “reformist,” Abdel Monem abul Futouh, the same question. “This revolution is led by the youth,” Futouh explained to me from his office in the Doctors’ Union, “and we have to respect that this is their revolution. The Brotherhood youth didn’t get permission from the leadership to participate – they did this on their own… And if Mubarak doesn’t leave, then they won’t leave.”
As it turned out, not leaving was enough. The strategy, if one can call it that, worked. Two days later, millions took to the streets throughout Egypt. There was a sense that they had already won. And later that day, the revolution – at least its first phase – was complete. I was in Tahrir after the military announced that Mubarak, finally, was stepping down. One of the youth activists who I had met with earlier sent me a simple text message: “We did it.”
The following morning, I walked through the square that had, just the night before, been the site of celebration. The revolution had changed the protesters, instilling a new ethic of volunteerism and ownership. Young people spread throughout the square, sweeping the streets, picking up trash. Some of them walked around with signs saying “sorry for the disturbance – we are building Egypt.”
That morning, I met with Ammar al-Beltagi, a Brotherhood youth activist. He sounded a note of caution about Egypt’s new rulers – the military. Throughout the 18 days of protest, Egyptians had chanted “the people and the army hand in hand.” Some of this was tactical – a way to create a sense of solidarity and, hopefully, get the military to take their side. In reality, though, the army had been, for decades, a key pillar of the Mubarak regime. It was not a pro-democracy organization, nor likely to become one overnight. But Beltagi’s proposed strategy reflected a new sense of confidence. “This is our power now – we can go back to the streets and make this revolution a second time if there’s ever another regime [that wants to take away our rights].”
This, in essence, captures the region’s new protest ethic: if there’s a problem, gather tens of thousands and occupy your country’s main square. Don’t leave until you get what you want. It may sound naïve, but it actually seems to work.
During my time in Cairo, I met with Brotherhood activists and leaders to try to get a better read of their role in the revolution (you can read my article on that here). They were careful to say, and repeat over and over, that the revolution had nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with being Egyptian. As Abdelrahman Ayyash, a well-known Islamist blogger, told me: “If it’s ever perceived that this revolution is an Islamic one, the U.S. and others will be able to justify a crackdown.” For this reason, the Brotherhood purposely downplayed its participation in the protests. But behind the scenes, it played a significant support role, providing food and medical services to protesters, protecting them from regime thugs, and generally keeping order.
Today, the Brotherhood finds itself in an enviable, if delicate position, as the most powerful group in the country. Just a few months ago, Brotherhood members were routinely harassed and imprisoned by security forces. The Mubarak regime engaged in unprecedented rigging in the November 28th elections, leaving the Brotherhood with 0 seats in parliament (compared to their previous 88 seats). The goal was becoming clear: erasing the Brotherhood from Egyptian political life. The situation today couldn’t be more different. On March 4, Egypt’s new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf addressed a raucous crowd in Tahrir Square. Standing by his side on stage was none other than senior Brotherhood leader Mohammed al-Beltagi, capping what amounted to a remarkable reversal of fortune for the long-banned group.
This has made many leftist and liberals nervous. Unlike the Brotherhood, which enjoys considerable grassroots support throughout Egypt, the secular opposition lacks strong parties and any organized presence outside of Cairo and Alexandria. In other words, if elections were held tomorrow, they wouldn’t stand a chance. And, even if elections are held in six months, they might still have trouble competing. Building credible political parties takes time. This is why many of them are calling for an extended transitional period. The Brotherhood, for its part, has tried to allay some of these fears, saying it would not seek a parliamentary majority. This should provide some consolation: Islamist groups, including the Brotherhood, have a history of losing elections on purpose to avoid provoking powerful domestic or international actors. In the new Egypt, the old regime might be gone, but Islamists still fear a backlash if they rise too quickly. The world is (still) watching.
But with a situation so fluid, there are no real guarantees. The Brotherhood, in its current form, will not run in the coming elections. It is forming a new “Freedom and Justice Party,” which will be administratively separate from the Brotherhood, opening its doors to new members outside the movement. What form will the new party take and what will exactly will it want? And it’s not just the Muslim Brotherhood anymore. Al-Wasat, which broke off from the Brotherhood in the 1990s, was licensed as a political party last month. All of this is unprecedented territory. The military, the Brotherhood, the liberal opposition, and the youth revolutionaries have all been thrust in new and difficult positions. None of them have done this before.