The Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to make the most of its position as Egypt’s largest and best-organized opposition group after initially declining to participate in the pro-democracy protests that have swept the nation.
The shadowy group of Arab intellectuals and professionals - which officially is banned by Egypt’s secular government - has backed Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as an interim national leader in transition talks with the government.
In a phone interview from Cairo with The Washington Times last week, Essam el-Erian, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, said there has been no shift in his group’s support for Mr. ElBaradei. However, he declined to say whether it would support Mr. ElBaradei in a presidential election.
“When election time comes and we know the candidates and we can see the program for everyone, then we can decide,” Mr. el-Erian said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to impose Shariah law, has been banned in Egypt since 1954, but its candidates have participated in elections as independents.
The lack of fair elections makes it difficult to gauge the group’s popularity.
Scott Atran, research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, said the Brotherhood discredited itself by at first saying it would not join the protests.
“No one on the street in Egypt is really taking the Muslim Brotherhood all that seriously, but they are very worried that the U.S. press and the European Union are and that this fear will be Mubarak’s only chance of survival,” Mr. Atran said.
“Now [the Brotherhood is] seen as bunglers trying to hijack things,” he added.
According to some unofficial estimates, the Muslim Brotherhood has about 100,000 members in a total Egyptian population of 80 million.
Uncertainty over the Brotherhood’s intentions, especially how it views Israel, has created some unease.
In an interview with Japan’s NHTV, Rashad al-Bayoumi, a deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, reportedly spoke in favor of dissolving Egypt’s 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel. “After President Mubarak steps down and a provisional government is formed, there is a need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel,” Mr. al-Bayoumi said.
However, Mr. el-Erian told The Times the group favors “cooperation all over the world.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, nonviolent Islamic organization,” Mr. el-Erian said. “We want a civil democratic state which provides all citizens who are equal with prosperity, equality, justice and freedom.”
London-based Metsa Rahimi, a security intelligence analyst at Janusian Security Risk Management, acknowledged concern that Islamist political groups may fill the vacuum left by overthrown Arab governments.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a serious contender in a new government should one be formed in Egypt,” Ms. Rahimi said.
The Islamists could win in a free election if they wanted to, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, in a phone interview.
“But the Brotherhood does not want to win because they know that the international community will go crazy if it does,” Mr. Hamid said.
The Obama administration has had no contact with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Frank G. Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt who was dispatched by the Obama administration to Cairo last week, met with Mr. Mubarak and his vice president, Omar Suleiman, but not with representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Mubarak’s regime effectively has weakened all opposition except the Islamists, who have an agenda that the majority of Egypt’s secular public does not support. It would, however, be hard to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from a genuine coalition.
“There is no question in Egypt that aside from the ruling party, the large organization that has had roots and access to the public is the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland in College Park.
“Whether or not there are disparate factions opposing the regime that can put together a coalition is hard to know,” he added.