The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood

Grim Prospects for a Liberal Egypt

The protesters who led Egypt's revolt last January were young, liberal, and linked-in. They were the bloggers who first proposed the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak on Twitter; the Facebook-based activists who invited their "friends" to protest; and Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google executive who, after Egypt's state security agency detained him for 12 days, rallied the crowds to hold Tahrir Square. Far from emulating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they channeled Thomas Paine, calling for civil liberties, religious equality, and an end to Mubarak's dictatorship. Their determination, punctuated by the speed of their triumph, fueled optimism that the long-awaited Arab Spring had finally sprung -- that the Middle East would no longer be an autocratic exception in an increasingly democratic world.

The political transition following their revolt, however, has dulled this optimism. The iconic youths of Tahrir Square are now deeply divided among nearly a dozen, often indistinguishable political parties, almost all of which are either too new to be known or too discredited by their cooperation with the previous regime. Concentrated within the small percentage of Internet-using, politically literate Egyptians, their numbers are surprisingly small.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which largely avoided the limelight during the revolt, is seizing the political momentum. The Brotherhood is Egypt's most cohesive political movement, with an unparalleled ability to mobilize its followers, who will serve it extremely well in a country still unaccustomed to voting. To understand the sources of the Brotherhood's political strength, and the reasons why it is unlikely to temper its ideology, it helps to take a close look at its organizational structure and the nature of its membership. From January through March of this year, I interviewed nearly 30 current and former Muslim Brothers in an attempt to do just that. Whereas Egypt's liberal and leftist political parties are nearly as easy to join as parties in the West, becoming a full-fledged Muslim Brother is a five- to eight-year process, during which aspiring members are closely watched for their loyalty to the cause and are indoctrinated in the Brotherhood's curriculum. This intricate system for recruitment and internal promotion produces members who are strongly committed to the organization's purpose, enabling its leaders it to mobilize its followers as they see fit.

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