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.

Protesters pray in Egypt. Click image to expand.
Demonstrators pray in Tahrir Square

Omar Mazin doesn't want to meet me anywhere except Tahrir Square today. He says it's just not safe. It's also not safe to use his real name—Omar Mazin is his work name. He has a risky job running a Muslim Brotherhood Web site devoted to debunking myths about the officially banned but widely popular religious group. The site is an English primer on the group and Islam in general. "It explains that we are not terrorists and that there is a moderate alternative to Egypt's regime," he says.

Using the threat of a radical Islamist takeover as a reason for the country's lack of political freedoms, the Egyptian government has jailed scores of members in the brotherhood's 82-year history. If Omar's work has been dangerous in the past, it's now also gaining new prominence. On Sunday, for the first time, members of the brotherhood met with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman to discuss the upheaval that has brought the country to its knees. Being part of the negotiations is a coup for a group that has been demonized by the regime. But the limelight has its drawbacks—mainly, causing and exposing friction within the group.

The group's youth movement—the Brotherhood Youth—has been on Tahrir Square since Day 1, three days before their older leadership officially threw its weight behind the protests. So when news broke that the brotherhood was negotiating with the regime, many of their young members tell me, it was a huge letdown.

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"For me, it means they are not representing their youth," Omar says. "I believe there are some internal divisions about talking to the regime. Protesters here say anyone that met the government before Mubarak stepped down doesn't represent us anymore."

Others who are part of the Brotherhood Youth agree. "We said we wouldn't have talks with anyone until Mubarak leaves," says Sarah Mohammed, an 18-year-old member. "Some people were thinking they must leave" the brotherhood because of the meeting, she says.

She and I are sitting in the mosque-turned-makeshift hospital, where for days doctors have been treating the hundreds of protesters injured by the regime. Around us, nurses and doctors check supplies. The hospital is extremely well-managed, with an ICU, an orthopedic clinic, a pharmacy, and more. It's just the kind of organizational feat the brotherhood is known for. The brotherhood has long run schools, hospitals, and charities in Egypt, and part of the reason it is so popular is that they are better run than the government's.

But everyone here is quick to acknowledge that the hospital, the barricades, the body searches to get in and out of the square—these have not been organized by the brotherhood. Everyone also acknowledges that the brotherhood did not start the revolution. But no one can argue that the brotherhood is not essential to maintaining it.

 "We are the most organized, powerful group in Egypt," Sarah says, with membership in the hundreds of thousands. "This wouldn't have happened at all without the brotherhood members. Ask anyone from other groups."

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