Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood promotes moderate path
- 20 February 2011
- From the section Middle East
The Muslim Brotherhood - the biggest opposition force in Egypt - is mistrusted in the West and by some in Egypt. The BBC's Tarik Kafala investigates its platform and activities.
The Brotherhood runs hospitals, schools, banks, community centres, and facilities for the disabled in cities and towns all over the country.
Down a small residential street in Maadi, a huge suburb in south Cairo, is the Farouk Hospital.
Tucked away behind the mosque it is named after, it offers a full range of procedures, emergency surgery, dentistry, labs, psychiatric care, a pharmacy and a cafe.
Over the last 25 years, the hospital has gradually taken over a six-floor block of flats.
As you move around it you enter and leave what were individual homes, now knocked through into each other and messily rearranged to suit the needs of a general hospital.
The hospital is one of 24 across Egypt belonging to the Islamic Medical Association, an organisation affiliated to and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the emergency postnatal unit, Farida, one of the nurses, explains the care given to a baby boy born prematurely seven months ago.
"He's off the ventilator now, and is breathing well. He has reached an acceptable birth weight and should go home soon," Farida says.
'Dependent on donations'
The hospital director, Magdi Ahmed Abdel Aziz, is proud of what the hospital offers.
It can house 75 inpatients and handle 400 outpatients a day. There are 200 doctors on the books - some work full-time, some two or three shifts a week.
"We run a private hospital, so we charge for treatment," says Dr Aziz.
"But we offer all our services much cheaper than elsewhere. For those who cannot afford even this, we can offer our treatment and drugs for free.
"We can do this because doctors volunteer. We are also a charity so we depend on donations.
Dr Aziz is keen to say that the hospital is "non-political and non-profit making, and we offer our medical services without consideration to gender, race or religion".
Such hospitals are the cutting edge of the Muslim Brotherhood's much-vaunted social services.
The popularity of the movement among the millions of Egyptians living in poverty is widely explained in terms of the efficiency of these services.
The Farouk Hospital is clean and it works, its corridors bustling with poor and middle class Egyptians.
It is a noticeably Islamic institution; framed Koranic verses hang on the walls; the many women there, patients and employees, wear colourful headscarves and conservative clothes.
"This is a charitable organisation, it depends on goodwill. People volunteer to work here as part of their zakat," Dr Abdel Aziz explains.
Zakat - one of the pillars of Islam along with prayer and performing the hajj - is giving a portion of a person's wealth to the needy.
The Brotherhood, still banned in Egypt, is beginning its campaign to be recognised as a formal political party. It is assumed to be Egypt's best organised and most popular opposition movement.
With its conservative Islamist agenda and its historical links to radical and sometimes violent groups, it is feared and mistrusted in the West and to some extent in Egypt.
Its many critics fear it will seek to come to power through the ballot box and institute Sharia Islamic law, moving Egypt in a far more conservative and anti-Western direction.
Dr Issam al-Arian, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman, is himself a medic. He runs his own private medical lab and volunteers three days a week at the Islamic Medical Association.
"The worry about us in the West is the result of bias and double standards," Dr Arian says.
The movement, he says, wants to be a party representing all kinds of Egyptians.
"We will serve Muslims, Christian, men and women, young and old. Many friends - Christians I am talking about - are asking us when we will form a party."
He insists the movement is genuinely democratic, and will have to compete with emerging parties for the votes of Egyptians.
"The West should respect this, and after elections respect the wishes of the Egyptians.
"It is in the West's interest to honestly pursue its own interests in the Middle East. The main demand of our revolution was for democracy, and this cannot be put this on hold across the region because of the fears of six million Israelis."
The movement was not at the forefront of the protests. Members joined the huge crowds across the country, but there was a noticeable absence of the movement's slogan, "Islam is the answer", and the protests had a secular and ecumenical character.
The Brotherhood seems intentionally to be taking a back seat, hoping to establish itself legally and openly and build from there, rather than rush into elections.
"We have said publicly many times that we do not seek a majority in any parliament after elections. And we are not going to put a candidate in the presidential elections," Dr Arian explains.
The Brotherhood's handling of the protests has been canny, argues Mona Makram-Ebied, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
She is a former member of parliament for the Wafd Party, Egypt's oldest political party, and has just joined the Trustees of the January 25 Revolution, a body of academics and politicians who aim to defend the aims of the revolution.
Mrs Makram-Ebied believes that the Brotherhood was savvy in its handling of the protests.
"They were there, but they did not overwhelm things," she says.
Mrs Makram-Ebied believes that the Muslim Brotherhood can and should become a legal party if it "plays by the rules".
These are, she argues: "no Sharia law and real democratic elections, not just once, but again and again".
"This appears to be what they want and, in time, they should become something akin to the Christian Democrats in Europe."
Egyptians have for years complained that they have had a choice between an authoritarian and corrupt government and a theocratic opposition movement.
Though illegal, the Brotherhood fielded candidates as independents.
For Egypt's eight million or so Christians, the Brotherhood's call for Sharia law to be made the law of the state is particularly worrying.
Attacks on Christians have been on the increase. On New Year's Eve, 21 people were killed in a suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria.
"I felt this solidarity building after the massacre of New Year's Eve. People were aghast. So there was a beginning and Tahrir Square epitomised what we were all looking for," says Mrs Makram-Ebeid, herself a Christian.
"My hope is that the new generation will come out with new ideas for a secular, democratic and pluralistic country. But it will take time."