Movement's presence in Tahrir Square is far from commanding, with no brotherhood flags or slogans on display, nor any indicators of any other Egyptian political party or faction.
Uprising dents idea that Muslim Brotherhood leads Egypt's opposition
CAIRO // For years it has been conventional wisdom in Egypt that only the Muslim Brotherhood had the popularity and the grassroots organisational power to bring thousands of protesters into the street.
Throughout the past 10 years, secularist trends such as the Keyfaya (Enough!) movement and the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour have made noisy challenges to the regime of the president, Hosni Mubarak, often capturing the fascination of the international media in the process. Each, however, faltered on their inability to connect with the larger Egyptian street and draw the kind of mass support that the Brotherhood has enjoyed for years.
That perception of Brotherhood street power was only enhanced during the 2005 parliamentary elections. Eight Brotherhood candidates, running as independents in a thinly veiled ploy to skirt a formal ban on the group, captured seats in the People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament. The victories instantly established the Islamist group as the country's largest opposition parliamentary bloc.
But the past 12 days of historic civil unrest have turned this assumption of Brotherhood dominance on its head.
The January 25 "Day of Rage" protests, when tens of thousands of Egyptians turned out in demonstrations throughout the country, were particularly historic because they took place without the direct organisational involvement of the Brotherhood. In the days leading up to those protests, Muslim Brotherhood officials said the organisation would not officially participate but that individual members were free to take part.
Even after January 25, when protesters massed in record numbers and took control of Tahrir Square, the Brotherhood maintained the same stance. Brotherhood decision-making is famously opaque, but Mohammed El Baltagy, a former Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, told The Wall Street Journal that the decision was made to prevent the government from controlling the narrative and painting the diverse and organic protest wave as simply a shadow Brotherhood power play.
"We don't want it to be a fight between the ruling regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, because it is really a fight between the ruling regime and all the people," said Mr El Baltagy.
Starting around January 30, a distinctly increased Islamist presence began to be noticeable among the Tahrir protesters. But the movement is far from dominant among the crowds and there have been no Brotherhood flags or slogans on display - nor, for that matter, any indicators of any other specific Egyptian political party or faction.
Indeed, both secularists and Islamists seem to be co-operating, mingling and devising unique divisions of labour. On Friday, when devout members of the crowd conducted a mass noon prayer on the Tahrir concrete, the secularists and Christians among the protesters massed outside the many entry points to the square to ensure that armed supporters of Mr Mubarak did not exploit the moment for an assault.
While there has been significant public worry that the Brotherhood would dominate a post-Mubarak electoral landscape, it has been hard to find anyone in Tahrir this past week who shared that anxiety.
One mid-20s protester, who identified himself only as Ahmed and said he was not religious, said the Brotherhood's massive 2005 parliamentary gains "belonged to a different Egypt. There would be much more competition in the future."
What Ahmed and others here believe is that the Brotherhood has thrived at the ballot boxes partly because of endemic apathy and helplessness among the majority of Egyptian voters. Like the Christian Coalition in America in the 1980s and 1990s, the Brotherhood won because they cared more. They have never operated in an environment of a politicised and engaged Egyptian electorate.
Brotherhood members and other non-affiliated Egyptian Islamists seem perfectly content to take their chances in an open, democratic and highly competitive system. They even seem comfortable with the possibility that the people might not overwhelmingly choose them.
Last week, Ossama Zaki, 45, the owner of a paint production company, said: "Look at me. Of course I am from the Islamist trend and I prefer that the Islamist movement rules Egypt. But if the people don't chose the Islamists, then it's our fault and our obligation to reform ourselves to meet the demands of the people."