Egyptian protests: The Muslim Brotherhood faces internal tension and a generational divide.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 8 2011 5:31 PM

Sibling Rivalries

As the protests in Cairo continue, the Muslim Brotherhood faces internal tension and a generational divide.

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I do, talking to members of other secular groups, and as promised no one discounts the contribution of the brotherhood. But measuring that contribution is very difficult. It's not like those who belong to the brotherhood—which remains banned in Egypt—walk around with pins signifying their membership.

Hassan Selim has no political affiliations. The 23-year-old law student has been listening to my conversation with Sarah, and he interrupts us by showing us an article from a state-run newspaper that says the brotherhood runs the hospital we are sitting in. He finds the story extremely upsetting. "The people here are working for Egypt, they are not working for the brotherhood," he says forcefully. At the same time, Hassan notes that most of the doctors in the hospital are members of the brotherhood. He has been camped out here for two days, documenting every injury he sees on a laptop, part of a team of people who are collecting evidence against the government.

Another protester, who works in a think tank supported by the brotherhood, joins us in the cordoned off area inside the hospital. He estimates that members of the brotherhood make up 20 percent of the protesters in the square. At night, people say the proportion increases to maybe 35 percent. The women who spend their nights on the square with young children, everyone agrees, are probably overwhelmingly members of the brotherhood.

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As we talk, the head doctor pokes his head into the tent. I ask if he's also a member of the brotherhood. "No titles at all!" he screams. "This hospital has no titles at all, Muslims, Copts (Christians), anyone. No titles at all!" I leave the area while others calm him down. But he never did answer my question. Later I see him walk out of the hospital flanked by brotherhood members I know.

Moaz Abdel Karim is a member of the Brotherhood Youth and a delegate to the Coalition of the Youth of the Egyptian Revolution, an umbrella organization of different youth groups trying to represent the interests of the people in the square. He is quick to say his group is only part and parcel of the occupation of Cairo's main square. He will not claim credit for any particular aspect of the uprising, saying he shares it equally with his co-organizing groups.

He is also quite clear that he was upset by the actions of his leadership. When the representatives from the brotherhood met with the regime, he called them to ask why. "If the brotherhood takes a decision to negotiate with the government," he says he told them, "this will make a problem between us and the rest of the groups here." Moaz says, however, that he was reassured that the leadership will not commit to anything without the support of its young people.

Yet there can be little doubt that the events of the last two weeks, while they have raised the public profile of the brotherhood, have also raised tensions within it. Not that anyone at the brotherhood is willing to acknowledge as much. When I ask Essam El-Erian, a frequent spokesman for the brotherhood leadership, about divisions in their ranks, he tells me: "That is not correct. All Muslim Brotherhood are united behind their leader." Then he hangs up.

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.