Five lanes broad and usually bustling, Cairo's Qasr al-Aini Street stretches south from Tahrir (Liberation) Square, forming the westward border of an area of looping little streets laid out by the British that is still called "Garden City". To the east, Garden City is bounded by the Nile, and over its northern end looms the massive concrete blockhouse that is the U.S. Embassy.
Confrontations along Qasr al-Aini Street have appeared on many of the newscasts of the past week. It is an important route. As you walk south down its western side you pass first of all the old campus of the American University of Cairo, then the Egyptian parliament. But if you walk about a third of a mile further south on the street's eastern side you come to the charmingly dilapidated building that houses the headquarters of the Egyptian Medical Society and the Arab Medical Union. For many years now, if you wanted to meet or interview the leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (MB), you would come here to do it. Under the terms of a complex, ever-shifting "negotiation" between Pres. Hosni Mubarak's security forces and the leaders of the MB, they were generally allowed to organize and hold semi-public court here at the Medical Union building -- though the MB were never allowed to compete openly and fairly for seats in the parliament just a stone's throw away along Qasr al-Aini Street.
In February 2007, I went to the Medical Union building to conduct a painstakingly arranged interview with Dr. Abdel Monem Abul-Futouh who, in addition to being the union's General Secretary, is also a member of the MB's ruling Guidance Council. Abul-Futouh is generally thought to be a key leader of the MB's more "liberal" wing. He is a genial, energetic man who seemed when I met him to be about 60 years old. He warned -- in terms that strike an eerie resonance today -- that:
"The fear here is a popular explosion -- not controlled by us, or by anyone. This is a very dangerous prospect that may come about if the regime doesn't stop its oppression and move toward more political inclusion. We'd like to have cooperation with the regime, and with all the forces in society. The system here should be made more democratic. The regime should take true steps towards democracy. We understand they can't do it overnight, but they should do it with a clear timetable. They should take true steps against corruption. And work for the true inclusion of all the peaceful political trends here -- the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, everyone."
During the interview, Abul-Futouh was adamant that, despite the repression that the regime sustained against MB leaders and organizers, the movement as a whole was determined not to see any of its members pushed over the line into the use of violence. "The Brotherhood strategically chose nonviolence in 1984, and it was after that, that we entered Parliament and the unions and so on," he said.
In the Egyptian parliamentary elections of November 2005, the MB was allowed to field candidates nationwide. They were not allowed to run explicitly in the organization's name (though everyone knew who they were.) They were also subjected to significant logistical discrimination from election officials -- but MB candidates won 88 of the parliament's 444 seats that year. Then, in 2006, in the aftermath of the victory that the MB's sister-organization Hamas won in elections in the Palestinian territories, President Mubarak rolled back even the modest democratic opening of 2005. (And during the country's most recent parliamentary "elections" last November, the goons from Mubarak's ruling party, the "National Democratic Party", engaged in such blatant electoral violence and intimidation that, though the MB took part in the first round of elections, they refused to take part in the runoffs.)
Regarding relations with the United States, in 2007 Abul-Futouh stressed to me that:
"The main Islamic streams are not against the American people, but against the American government and its policies. We as the Muslim Brotherhood, in every country where we are, this movement wants to cooperate with all the other peoples of the world -- the Americans, the Chinese, the Europeans -- but to do so on the basis ofrespect from both sides."
He talked a little about two or three visits he has made to the U.S., and how warm and welcoming he had found the people there. "There are many areas of agreement between us and Americans. We ask, what is the difference between mainstream Islam and American democracy?"
I asked him about the fears many Americans have concerning the MB's stated goal of "restoring the Islamic Caliphate": Shouldn't we in the West be concerned about that, I asked?
"If different Islamic states want to come together and make a political union, why shouldn't they?" he replied. "If it's okay for the Europeans to come together, and before that, the various north American states came together and made a union-- why shouldn't the Islamic states do it, too?" But maybe you'll want to come and extend your Caliphate over our countries, as well, I said.
"No, no! Islamic understandings make it haram [religiously forbidden] to overcome others by force. But anyway, why do you speak of this fear of being overcome by us when it is you who have overcome our countries. You're occupying our countries and controlling so many aspects of our lives here! So it is foolish for you to speak of a fear of being overcome by us."
More recently, last July, an intriguing Q&A on the MB website seemed to be reframing the issue of the Caliphate to pick up on the root meaning of the word (a "legitimate political succession") and to refer to the values of good governance that need to be enacted rather any one monolithic form of Islamic governance.
During the 2007 interview, I also pressed Abul-Futouh to explain his view on Israel. "We as the Muslim Brotherhood know that the Jews in Israel are human beings," he said, "and we know they should live, and should not be killed. Just the same as the Palestinians who are the original owners of the country should live and should not be killed. The Palestinian problem was made by the western regimes and surely they should solve it-- but not at the expense of the Palestinians!"
He sought to illustrate his argument about why the Jewish people of Israel should not be killed by describing an Arab custom whereby a person who is born as a result of a rape should not face any punishment or stigma on account of that fact. "That person's existence may be the result of a fault, but the fault was not his," he said. "What fault has he committed?"
"The Jewish people can go or stay, but whatever they do the Palestinians should win their rights. You could have an outcome with one state there -- a secular, democratic state -- or two states. But I think one state would be better, because if you have two states, then they would fight. It would be better to be one state-- like South Africa."
I asked him, did he really say a "secular, democratic state"? This seemed ground-breaking given the MB's traditional opposition to the idea of secular rule, and I wanted to confirm that he really intended to say it that way -- in Arabic, "dawla dimuqratiyya 'ulmaniyya". He confirmed that he did mean that, and continued:
"...But Israel refuses everything! And now, the US regime -- the regime, not the people -- has joined Israel in imposing this very bad siege on the Palestinians. Why does America attack us? I think they do this because they are rightwing and extremist and have interests with the multinational companies which bring so many benefits to people associated with the regime there that they live well at our expense."
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There was a time, many years ago, when the U.S. embassy at the north end of Garden City was a lot smaller and more welcoming, and when junior and mid-career diplomats from its political department were tasked with trying to maintain contacts with representatives of the MB, as of other significant Egyptian political trends. Such contacts -- with people representing a broad spectrum of political opinion -- are the meat-and-potatoes of normal diplomatic work, everywhere in the world.
But not for the U.S. embassy in Egypt today. Many years ago, the embassy broke off all contacts with the MB. (The most recent WikiLeaks cable about Egypt show Political Counselor Donald Blome groping around last year as he had to rely on material from the MB's public website as he tried to figure out what the movement was up to.)
A few days before I interviewed Abul-Futouh, I talked for a while -- also at the Medical Union building -- with Dr. Issam el-Erian, another member of the MB leadership who just a few days earlier had been released from one of the periodic terms of imprisonment with which Mubarak liked to keep the MB's leaders constantly off-balance. (In 2010, Abul-Futouh in turn was incarcerated for five months.)
In Erian's case, the prison term that preceded our 2007 meeting had lasted five years. As frequently happens in repressive Arab societies, after Erian's release a stream of visitors had come to "congratulate" him. But, he told me, one figure had been notably absent: then-U.S. ambassador Frank Ricciardone-now our ambassador in Ankara.
"I have known Ricciardone for 18 years, since he was here as a young diplomat," Erian said,
"but he didn't say a word while I was in jail, or congratulate me on my freedom since! Now, he's not even saying anything about the continued imprisonment of [secular reformist politician] Ayman Nour. And they never said anything about all the Brotherhood people detained. The U.S. administration has worked out a package deal with our government. The regime works for U.S. interests in the region, and the U.S. remains silent on its abuses. That worked for many years. But it can't work now in an era of transparency."
* * *
At this point -- and primarily because of the degree of repression that President Mubarak has exercised for so long against all the country's opposition forces -- it is impossible for anyone accurately to assess the weight that the MB might be able to mobilize in the context of a free and rights-respecting political system in Egypt. The nearest indicator we have is what happened in those relatively free elections of 2005, when they won 20% of the seats. But even those results provide only an imperfect indicator of popular sentiment: The rules were still stacked significantly against all but Mubarak's ruling "National Democratic Party" that year; and voting rates among a still largely alienated public were anyway below 25%.
But amidst all the current uncertainty about the internal balance of power in Egypt, the following facts seem evident to me:
1. The MB is a significant force in Egyptian politics;
2. Its leaders' clear decision to participate in the January 28 street protests (where they had been noticeably ambivalent about the protests called three days earlier) expanded the protest movement to the point where, since January 28, it has threatened to topple Mubarak;
3. The MB's participation in the protests has been peaceful and has included constant public calls -- from the MB, as from other opposition parties -- that the whole popular action be conducted peacefully;
4. The MB has shown its willingness to work in coalition with the secular opposition forces who have formed an important spearhead of the country's democratic movement; it has also announced its support for the (perhaps transitional) leadership of Mohamed ElBaradei, who has cast himself primarily as a constitutionalist with no other political/ideological "flavor";
5. The MB has sent many clear signals of its desire for stability inside the country, and a determination to avoid a broad range of actions that might be seen by others as provocative: in the protests, its people have not thus far been shouting religious slogans, raising religious banners, or openly expressing anti-U.S. or even anti-Israeli sentiment;
6. The degree of discipline this has all involved has been impressive.
One key change the Obama administration needs to make as it reassesses its policy towards Egypt is to lift the longstanding ban on U.S. diplomats meeting with representatives of this movement. If they still know how to listen, they would learn a lot.
Helena Cobban is the owner of Just World Books. She has reported on and analyzed Middle East affairs since 1975. From 1990-2007 she wrote a regular column on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. She blogs at Just World News.