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