Heba Serag moves around the studio of Maria TV with ease, adjusting a camera angle, raising the lighting level. She is good at her job, running production at the new channel, and she is savouring it.
Ms. Serag, 25, graduated from Cairo University three years ago at the top of her class, and had a series of internships at television channels where, she says, the bosses praised her skills. “But they wouldn’t give me a job.” Ms. Serag wears a niqab (face veil) and conservative Islamic dress, including gloves, leaving visible nothing but a sliver of her eyes, stylishly shaded in pale blue shadow. And until a few months ago, a woman who makes that choice had no place in a public role in this country.
But this is the new Egypt – the Egypt where a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood is the elected president, where Salafists, who advocate for a literal interpretation of the Koran and early Islamic writing, are a noisy political opposition, where a constitution being drawn up right now makes sharia, or Islamic law, the basis for all legislation.
And there is a new television channel that targets religiously conservative women, with chat shows, beauty tips and heated political debate a bit like The View, staffed entirely by women such as Ms. Serag. Around town, it is known as Niqabi TV – not always affectionately.
It has been only 20 months since Egypt’s startling revolution began, and just three since the country passed the first milestone in its democratic experiment: a presidential election that brought Mohamed Morsi, an avuncular California-educated engineer and a veteran member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to power.
And yet Egyptians of all political persuasions are impatient for change and alert for any hint of it – for an uptick in a stifled economy that has only contracted since the revolution; for any gains in personal freedom, such as those of Ms. Serag, and for any freedoms that are lost.
Most of all, they are waiting and watching for signs of just what it is the Brotherhood intends to do.
During the long reign of Hosni Mubarak, and the two military dictators who preceded him, the Brotherhood was a quiet, even shadowy, opposition. The organization kept its countenance, seemingly occupied with its program of gradual change, believing that people must first be educated about Islam, then united, before political power is transformed into Islamic rule.
Then came the Arab Spring. Suddenly, young people fed up with the repression of the Mubarak regime were flocking to Tahrir Square and driving the old order to its knees.
This was, at the outset, a decidedly secular political movement carried out by Egyptians who happened to be Muslim. The Brotherhood, in fact, stayed well clear of it until the last days of the largely peaceful battle. Today, however, it has hastily adjusted recent history to claim a pivotal role in the dictator’s ouster.
“Egyptians saw it as a revolution,” says Ammar Ali Hassan, a sociologist who researches the country’s Islamist movements at the Nile Centre for Strategic Studies. “The Brotherhood saw it as an opportunity.”
Now, it is widely believed, by supporters and detractors alike, that no matter what the new government says, it has a “secret plan” – honed over decades – to Islamize the country.
President Morsi addressed the United Nations in New York this week, and Egyptians crowded around TVs to watch – as did people around the world, eager to know whether Egypt’s rapid change means this critical Western ally, the first Arab neighbour to make peace with Israel, a potential oil and gas powerhouse, and home of the largest military in the region, is about to make a radical departure.
When a mob breached the fortress-like U.S. embassy in central Cairo this month – angered by a U.S.-made film that mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammed – many in the West felt they had their answer.
But that incident seemed a far bigger deal outside the country than in it. Everyone, from hard-line Salafists to secular liberals, is quick to blame the attack on a tiny group of misguided Islamists who turned a peaceful protest into a riot. They see an inexperienced government (and a police force stung by recent accusations of brutal treatment of demonstrators) that did not move quickly enough, and insist the event says nothing about a change in view of the West. The lineup at the McDonald’s restaurant down the street from the embassy did not falter, nor did the list of students waiting to write English tests for applications to American colleges.
All this makes for tricky times for a movement that contends it never even wanted to get into politics. It’s enough to keep Amr Darrag, a senior Brotherhood member who chairs the “foreign relations” committee of its Freedom and Justice Party, out around the traffic-snarled city at all hours of the day.
In a late-night conversation in his living room, filled with gold Louis XIV-inspired furniture, Mr. Darrag, a congenial and clean-shaven engineer, says his is the most reluctant of governments, and came about only because the Brotherhood was forced to abandon its pledge not to field a presidential candidate.
“We never intended to run for the presidency, we’d been saying that all the time. But at a certain moment we realized that, if we want to move forward, the only thing to do is to field a candidate for the presidency … because we were told that, ‘You have no hope’ – not we as Muslim Brothers: Egyptians. They will not have any say in the executive power of running the country.”
He says the military had made it clear it did not intend to cede power to a civilian ruler, and only a Brotherhood candidate could rally the Egyptian people sufficiently and thus display the authority needed to oppose the military successfully. The other candidates running against Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak-era cabinet minister who for many represented the return of the old regime, had only small parties and no such authority.
And indeed, Mr. Morsi challenged the military and pulled it off. Last month, in his one bold move to date, he shocked the nation (and international observers) by cutting a deal with some second-tier generals and putting them in charge of the armed forces, forcibly retiring Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister seen as the architect of the military’s bid for ever-greater political power.
He also cancelled a decree that gave the military the power to, essentially, supersede the constitution – and thus checkmated the strongest threat to his government. Egyptians of every political persuasion were thrilled to see Mr. Tantawi gone – and then began to speculate about what Mr. Morsi intended to do with his new clout.
Such suspicion frustrates Mr. Darrag. “People insist on getting their view of what we would do from what the Taliban does or what Iran does. We’ve been [in power] for months now, and look at TV, look at the streets – nothing changed and there is no inclination to change anything.”
In fact, he adds, “You cannot change these things by force. Look at some other countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, where by force, by law, women have to cover their bodies totally – if you travel to Saudi Arabia, and look at what happens on [departing] airplanes where women take off their [veils] and put on full makeup and then go out.
“We don’t want that; this is hypocrisy, in our opinion. We want people who really willingly follow the Islamic tradition, the Islamic rules. Not by force. Because, if you enforce that, they will just give them up the first moment they are allowed to. This is not what we’re after. We would like to have a person with a better relationship with God.”
Mr. Darrag’s breezy assurances are typical of the public face of his party. But for Egyptians concerned about the Brotherhood’s ability to govern, the embassy attack is emblematic of a key issue – it suggests the government’s hands are tied by its Islamist ideology and the flowering of conservative political groups in the wake of the revolution.
For example, Salafis criticized the Brotherhood for its willingness to participate in earthly politics under Mr. Mubarak – but then got into the game themselves in the first election, organizing an Islamist bloc led by al-Hizb an-Nour, the Party of the Light, that claimed 127 of 498 seats, second only to Freedom and Justice.
Now, some Salafis appear to sense an opportunity to push the envelope: The embassy attack is one of many examples, as is the recent arrest of blogger Alber Saber, accused of atheism. He was first detained by ordinary citizens; then the police he called for protection instead chose to jail him.
Tamer Mowafy, a veteran researcher with the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, says the Brotherhood, speaking a public language of freedom of belief and tolerance, wants no part of such actions, but cannot move swiftly against these actors because it has a pious public image to protect.
“The critics know the state is weak and the Muslim Brotherhood can’t punish them for certain things because they are supposed to be defenders of Islam, so we can expect attacks to come from everywhere,” he explains as activists hunch over laptops in every corner of his smoke-filled office.
“The bureaucracy is suspicious of [the Brotherhood] and they know it, the military doesn’t like them and they know it, and the Brotherhood is not willing to go against other forces, either – not against liberals or NGOs defending human rights.
“Right now, they don’t want to struggle with anyone, they want to take steps cautiously, and it’s making them look weak. They are not in full control.”
The Brotherhood knows it needs the co-operation of the military, and appears to have tacitly reassured the behemoth institution that it will not try to wrest back control of the estimated 15 per cent of the Egyptian economy that it controls as a private fiefdom. Even cronies of Mr. Mubarak are being welcomed into senior political positions and big business deals, as the Brotherhood tries to solidify its position. No one on either end of the political spectrum likes that.
But Mr. Mowafy says that, above all, the Brotherhood is characterized by its long-term view. “They take their time, and it may be a very long time, but they get to what they want.
“You have to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want, as an organization, to take control of the state – they want the state to become the organization. Every Egyptian should be a Brother. Not today or tomorrow – they want to plant their seeds and watch them grow.”
A critical indicator of what seeds are being sown – what plans the government has for the future face of Egypt – is the new constitution, which is months past its deadline. Until it is accepted in a national referendum, now tentatively slated for November, no new parliament can be elected and all else – bailouts from international financial institutions, reform of the vast public service, changes to a deeply skewed subsidy system that does little to help the poor – remains on hold.
Mr. Darrag is chair of the special assembly convened by parliament to draft the constitution and emphasizes that it represents all streams of the Egyptian polity – including Coptic Christians and liberal feminists.
But Prof. Hassan, who studies the Islamists, says that, by his count, Brotherhood and Salafist members make up 85 per cent the body, which needs agreement from only 75 per cent to adopt a motion. In fact, it is so deeply divided that this week liberal, secular members threatened to quit en masse.
There is as yet no final draft of the document, although some portions have reached the public. The central focus of debate is an article stating that principles of Islamic law (sharia, in Arabic) will be the basis for legislation. Most Egyptians are fine with a bland statement like this – the question is what the Brotherhood intends to do with it.
“The constitution can have 200 amazing amendments and have three articles override them – it’s meaningless,” Prof. Hassan says.
It will not mean much unless, for example, judges appointed by the government start setting aside legal precedents in favour of rulings drawn from sharia – and Mr. Mowafy says that, in recent weeks, judges have indeed begun to refer to sharia and the anticipated constitution, rather than historic jurisprudence.
The Brotherhood has also begun to appoint its people to posts in the state-run media, local government, the state governorate system and key agencies such as the auditor’s office.
This prompts Khalid Fahmy, a political historian with the American University of Cairo, to wonder: “To what degree are they infiltrating the state down the ladder to the lower and lower echelons?”
Egypt’s liberals are watching all this with trepidation. In an office filled with posters and banners calling for women’s rights, Mozn Hassan, director of an organization called Nazra for Feminist Studies, slumps wearily in her chair, her eyes ringed with dark circles, her hands twitching.
“This wasn’t paradise before,” she points out acidly. Egypt was socially conservative before the revolution, and parties took up issues such as sexual harassment and women’s right to education because they sounded good, but not, she says, because they really wanted to engage with equality.
Now, however, there is intense debate over the fact the new constitution refers to the need to “protect women and children” – but does not, like the old one, articulate what their rights are. For example, language prohibiting enslavement of women and children has been removed, thus eliminating 18 as the minimum age of marriage. Gone, too, is the official minimum quota for female parliamentarians.
Since the political transition, Ms. Hassan says, there have been “100 little stories” of gender equality in retreat – such as the medical college in upper Egypt that has begun to seat male and female students separately, claiming the women wanted it so they would not be harassed.
As Islam takes hold, she says, “women won’t be out of public space, but they will have more limitations. It won’t be, ‘Where are the women?’ but ‘What is the role of women?’ Women will wear modest clothes, for example, to have less hassle, to have access to public space.”
If liberals are anxious, Brotherhood supporters are impatient.
Mr. Morsi won many votes in Imbaba, a crowded neighbourhood of grim Soviet-styled apartment blocks where men sit and smoke cheap Chinese cigarettes in the streets and women chat from the shuttered balconies of small apartments shared by big families. It’s a neighbourhood of calmly religious people preoccupied by economic survival, the kind of people who still get worked up in seconds when they recall the venality of Mr. Mubarak and his cronies.
Mohammed al-Toubi, 23, runs a couple of small auto-body shops here, and had high hopes for the President, for whom he voted. “I’m impressed with Morsi’s words and speeches. But up until now, his actions haven’t been that impressive.”
Mr. al-Toubi, like many of his neighbours, is not so interested in the religious agenda. He wants to see a greater sense of security, a growing economy and real proof that Mr. Mubarak’s dreaded intelligence apparatus has been checked. “People are no longer easily scared and, if [the President] doesn’t act, then people will rise against him.”
The Brotherhood needs to placate people such as Mr. al-Toubi if it is to win a majority in parliament, something it views as critical to solidifying its position.
Post-conflict Africa and Latin America are thick with examples of revolutionary and opposition movements that struggled when they became governments, and the Brotherhood has a lot of baggage, such as the secrecy and unquestioned loyalty that helped it survive successive attempts to eradicate it since the 1950s.
It may say it never wanted power, Prof. Hassan notes, but that does not mean it will want to give it up soon. To strengthen its chances, he predicts, the Brotherhood “will change the rules of the political game” – including the election laws.
That means imposing a new emergency law that makes it easy to shut down opposition, co-opting the resource streams that Mr. Mubarak and his party henchman once used to fortify their power, and taking control of major posts in local government, security forces and the bureaucracy. “It’s going to be extremely hard for them to give up power without implementing their vision,” Prof. Hassan says.
But not everyone who voted for Mr. Morsi did so because of his Islamist credentials. Many either opposed Mr. Shafik and any ties to the old regime or were mainstream Muslims who believed the Brotherhood would halt the corruption of the Mubarak years.
Should its party begin to look less than clean in the months to come, the Brotherhood will struggle to retain that large chunk of the electorate – it governs a population now keenly aware of the power it can wield.
The Nile Centre for Strategic Studies operates from a bustling office in a British colonial-era building in downtown Cairo, its researchers besieged with interview requests as Egyptians devour political debate in a much-freer media.
Leaving one such interview, Prof. Hassan heads for a conference room jam-packed with young people. Most are about the same age as Maria TV’s Heba Serag, but instead of veils and gloves, the women wear stylish glasses, jeans and witty T-shirts. A few have covered their hair in bright print hijabs that match their wedge sandals.
“This is April 6,” the professor explains, preparing to close the door behind him. “These are the young people who are the April 6 movement” – the one that launched the revolution and the drama in Tahrir Square that brought down the old power.
Why are they here, these kids who usually haunt coffee shops?
To learn about the new power, “They’re coming to me for a lesson on Islamist movements.”
The rise of the Brotherhood
Over its 84-year history, the Muslim Brotherhood has changed radically.
In the beginning
The Ikhwan al-Muslimun was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, first as a spiritual and social organization, but it came, especially through the influential writing of the Islamist thinker Said Qutb in the 1950s, to focus on the idea of bringing about the rule of sharia as the one truly just system of government.
In the ranks
Its membership – estimated at 500,000 dues-paying followers – is carefully cultivated; a Brother must spend years working through a hierarchy of qualification before he is admitted into any but peripheral activities. (Women join the Sisterhood, which has a similar, if somewhat less rigid, structure, and focuses on social and charitable work.) Loyalty to the organization, modelled on fealty to God, is paramount.
Called the “accidental president” because he was a last-minute substitute for his party’s first choice, Mohammed Morsi now governs by executive power. Egypt’s first post-revolutionary parliament was dissolved by a high court in a technical dispute over qualifications, a challenge many people suspect was pushed by backers of the old regime.