Page last updated at 18:41 GMT, Thursday, 3 March 2011

Competing Muslim Brotherhood visions for Egypt

Watch Tim Whewell's film from Alexandria in full

The Muslim Brotherhood is vying to become an official party in post-Mubarak Egypt. The conservative Islamist views of some of the group's members scare many in Egypt and the West, but, as Tim Whewell has been finding out, many members, particularly young activists, are much more moderate.


Along a chaotic, bustling working-class street in the Alexandria suburb of el-Wardian, wedged between furniture workshops and fruit-stalls, there is a narrow staircase down into a basement that you would not notice but for the pile of shoes on the pavement outside.

Muslim Brotehrhood activist Doha
The first thing to do is to sever all ties with Israel because it is the cause of our ruin. And Mubarak was their agent
Doha, Muslim Brotherhood supporter

It leads down into a low-ceilinged, austere hall where there are men quietly praying or reading the Koran at most times of day.

But Masgid al-Mamoun, or the Mosque of the Faithful, does not limit itself to worship and study.

In a side-room, when I visited, half a dozen young men were on their hands and knees on the floor, busy with hammers and nails, scissors and drawing pins.

They were making banners and posters for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's largest and best-organised opposition movement.

For decades, keeping the Brotherhood and other Islamists from power was the main justification for the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Now the autocracy has crumbled, everyone wants to know what role the Brothers will play in a new Egypt - and what their true intentions are.

International 'interference'

In a movement that has always prided itself on the strength of its grassroots, the Mosque of the Faithful - down-to-earth, workaday, and effectively a Brotherhood cell - is a perfect place to seek answers.

In the last month, the congregation has been torn between sorrow and joy.

Brotherhood leaders said they back Egypt's existing treaties, including with Israel

One of its leading members, Nour Ali Nour, a petrol company manager, was shot dead on 28 January, when Mr Mubarak's security forces attacked protestors in the first massive marches of the Egyptian revolution.

The same day, his daughter Doha was due to get married. Now, a few weeks later, she has celebrated her wedding. But she is determined to honour her father's memory by raising any children to love and serve the Brotherhood as he did.

I asked her what is the most important thing to change in Egypt now, and without hesitation she replied:

"The first thing to do is to sever all ties with Israel because it is the cause of our ruin. And Mubarak was their agent.

"In my opinion America is exactly the same as Israel, as long as it harbours bad intentions towards us. We don't want aid from anyone, we just want other nations not to interfere with us, and we can manage."

However, her view is in direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders who, along with having renounced violence and signed up to democratic reform, have said that they will support Egypt's existing peace treaties, including that made in 1979 with Israel.

Role of women

Doha has similarly extreme views about what kind of justice system the post-Mubarak Egypt should adopt:

"Egypt follows French law, and we do not want that, because when someone steals for example, he spends a month in jail and then he's released to do the same again. But under Sharia law he gets his hand cut off and that's better."

Student and Muslim Brotherhood member Abdullah
We want our freedom so that we can form political parties in a pluralist civil society - and you see some shining examples like Turkey and Malaysia. You cannot judge us until you give us the chance. We Islamists need a chance.
Abdullah Massoud, student and Muslim Brotherhood member

Doha knows what she is talking about - she is a law graduate. But she has got no intention of working as a lawyer, women judges she said have been a disaster.

And as for women politicians: "Sharia doesn't allow women to participate in government because women are emotional. Women should be responsible for their houses and their jobs, but not government," she said.

Doha is not just a voice from the street. Some of her views reflect the official Muslim Brotherhood line.

A current policy document states that while the movement believes in democracy, the job of president of the republic should not be open to non-Muslims - or women.

On Islamic Sharia law there is no direct talk of Saudi-style punishments like amputations, but the policy is for all laws to be subject to the approval of a council of religious elders.

Will views like this, formulated when the Brotherhood was officially banned, change now it has a chance of power?

Overlap of religion and state

Already the movement has had its first taste of responsibility. Egypt's new military rulers offered it a seat on the committee to revise the country's constitution.

The place was taken by one of the Brothers' best known politicians, Alexandrian lawyer Sobhi Saleh.

I asked him why he does not believe Egypt should be allowed to have a woman president.

Muslim Brotherhood politician on why a woman should not be allowed to lead Egypt

"We are talking about Imamah - leading the people in prayers," he replied heatedly. "Islam gives women all the rights; but we are talking about the Imamah, which is one single post among eighty-two million.

"She has the right to be vice-president, or assistant to the president, or prime minister, or a minister, but is she going to deliver a Friday prayer sermon?"

The constitutional changes - to be put to a referendum later this month - certainly will not limit non-Muslims' or women's right to compete for Egypt's top job.

But the Brothers' apparent refusal to distinguish between president and prayer-leader, between civil and religious, will confirm some people's doubts about their democratic credentials.

Internal rifts

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred recently to fears that future elections in Egypt might lead to a new curtailment of freedoms.

And the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the West "should not be complacent or naive" about the Brotherhood.

Leading Brotherhood activist, Dr Hamy Hassan, who represented the el-Wardian district in Egypt's parliament for 10 years, denied there is any basis for those fears:

"We don't want to leave one dictatorship just to enter another, religious, one," he said. "That's why the brotherhood clearly announced that it won't run for the presidency and won't try to take a majority in parliament."

The Brotherhood played a studiously low-key role in the mass protests that brought down Mr Mubarak, determined to do nothing that might discredit the revolution in the eyes of the West.

In practice, for all the talk of unity, and a hierarchical pyramid structure within the Brotherhood, there are many internal disagreements between radicals and moderates.

In an article for a London-based Muslim Brotherhood publication the movement's supreme guide, Muhammad Badia, said its foremost task was to raise the banner of Jihad against Jews.

Young moderates

But such rhetoric is not popular with some of the young Brotherhood activists who fought for the revolution on the streets alongside liberal, secular protestors.

For many, the ultimate model for Islamists to follow is Turkey, a country that appears to them to be fulfilling its economic and strategic potential under a proudly Muslim government, and is an ally, but not a lackey, of the West.

Abdullah Massoud, a 22-year old pharmacy student and Brotherhood member, I spoke to said:

"We want our freedom so that we can form political parties in a pluralist civil society - and you see some shining examples like Turkey and Malaysia. You cannot judge us until you give us the chance. We Islamists need a chance."

His friend Youssef Mosallamy, 27, a civil engineer, added: "When we talk about Islamic society that doesn't mean like in Saudi Arabia. We will not cut off hands.

"The West has a lot of fears about Islamic regimes like Iran. But I think it is completely different. Iran is a terrible thing."



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