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The Muslim Brotherhood comes to America

By Lauren Bohn, Special to CNN
April 6, 2012 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
Sondos Asem, right, and her mother, Manal Abu Hassan, use social media in their Cairo living room
Sondos Asem, right, and her mother, Manal Abu Hassan, use social media in their Cairo living room
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A 24-year-old Egyptian woman is the unofficial tweeter of the Muslim Brotherhood
  • Sondos Asem has been promoting the Brotherhood in the United States
  • Experts say it's part of a global charm offensive for a group that wants to revamp its image
  • The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and largest Islamist movement in the world

Editor's note: Lauren Bohn is a 2010-2011 Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Egypt. She's a Pulitzer Center grantee and a 2012 Overseas Press Foundation fellow.

(CNN) -- Sondos Asem has butterflies, formulating answers to questions she expects to be asked and practicing her diction with the devotion of a high school debate champion. The gentle 24-year-old graduate student at the American University in Cairo is in a hotel room in downtown New York, figuring out what to wear on national television. ("This blazer would look good, right?" "Should I wear more color?")

Like many young Egyptians, she's been tweeting the fallout after the 2011 uprising that brought down former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The stakes are higher than 140-character dispatches might suggest. Asem has emerged as an unlikely unofficial spokeswoman for the Muslim Brotherhood, helping to run its English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb, and in turn revamp the group's image in the West.

In no more than three lines, often using abbreviations and hyperlinks, she hashes out the views of the Brotherhood, the 83-year-old fountainhead of political Islam in the region and one of the most powerful organizations in Egypt. The Brotherhood's newly established political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, has won just under half of the seats in the country's new parliament -- more than any other group -- and will have a major hand in rewriting the country's constitution.

This week, Asem and five members of the Brotherhood are in New York as part of the group's first delegation in the United States, the face the Brotherhood thinks perhaps would be well received in the West. Asem is part of a worldly, urban generation. She shops at Egypt's flashy mega-malls. She brushes her eyelids with a modest dash of sparkly eye shadow and wears designer head-scarves. She has an affinity for cosmopolitan cities and uses American teen parlance like "You rock" and "Yeaaah, girl." She seems very unlike the kind of person who has historically been loyal to the Brotherhood.

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the group is the oldest and largest Islamist movement in the world. It has affiliates and branches throughout the region and adherents in Europe and the United States. Mostly made up of middle-class doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, the Brotherhood has sought a more traditional Islamic society by building extensive networks and social services across the country, often filling in gaps left by the neglect of sclerotic, corrupt regimes.

Band of brothers

Until the Egyptian uprising in 2011, the Brotherhood was officially banned by Mubarak's government. Its members were routinely imprisoned. But it was given limited room to operate in the country and became one of the largest dissident organizations.

Many Western pundits and politicians have long denounced the group as a quasi-terrorist organization and the ancestor of al Qaeda. While some al Qaeda leaders -- notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is Egyptian -- have roots in the Brotherhood, al Qaeda largely dismisses it for renouncing violence and engaging politically.

When it comes to charming a largely Western audience, Asem is one of the Brotherhood's prized go-to people. She comes from a stalwart Brotherhood family. Her father is in charge of publishing all the organization's educational materials, like "How to be a good Muslim father" and "How to be a good Muslim wife." Her mother ran unsuccessfully for parliament and is the current chairman of the political party's committee on women.

Asem is persuasive and assertive, gesturing confidently as she talks, but she still looks down and shows the insecurities of a 20-something caught up in a national identity crisis.

Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's election
Asem: Egyptians want security, stability
Asem: 'Historic responsibility' in Egypt

Just six months ago, Asem went by a pseudonym in the press for fear of suffering a backlash among her private-university classmates, who are mostly secular and perceive the Brotherhood as a bunch of religious ideologues, bent on imposing Islamic law and diminishing civil liberties.

But times have changed since the Arab Spring.

The Brotherhood's near-landslide victory in parliamentary elections has given Asem and fellow members the confidence to back the group publicly. She and some of her equally eloquent colleagues have shuttled across the world to attend conferences on the revolutionary uprisings, and their opinions are being heard and heeded on an unprecedented scale.

At the recent Daily Beast/Newsweek Women in the World summit, Asem brushed elbows with actresses Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie and sat on a panel moderated by Andrew Sullivan, a renowned gay Catholic blogger. It was a far different scene from a few years ago, when she and other members gathered clandestinely in cramped living rooms, turning off their mobile phones because they were afraid state security forces could be tracking their whereabouts.

As Asem settled into her hotel room in New York and prepared to meet with a prominent news organization's editorial board, she got word that her boss had decided to run for the presidency of Egypt.

"Wow! I can't believe it," she exclaimed.

Not many can. The political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood has nominated its longtime strategist and financier Khairat al-Shater for president. The announcement ran counter to the Brotherhood's previous pledge to stay out of the race, a decision the group said was made to prevent flooding the fledgling political system and derailing a smooth transition of power in the country.

The delegation that Asem is part of is meeting with Pulitzer-prize-winning journalists and the editorial boards of prestigious papers. The Council on Foreign Relations is hosting them in New York for a talk and they're meeting with the Carnegie Endowment and the Brookings Institution in Washington, with a lot of coffee-talk in between. The goal: to alleviate the fears of a still-suspicious American establishment.

Global charm offensive

The delegation is really part of an international charm offensive, analysts and critics say, that is strategically unrepresentative of the deeply hierarchal Brotherhood. The image the group is trying to portray to the West belies its oppressive views of women and religious minorities, these experts say. And politically that could be a concern to the West, because the Brotherhood has historically been hostile to Israel.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to shun the delegation, and the least the West should do is continue to engage the group to understand its strategic influence in the new Egypt, say Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

Lynch says the recent meeting of former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain with al-Shater in Cairo was perhaps the most eye-catching moment in this new engagement. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was traveling with McCain, reportedly said of the trip: "I was very apprehensive when I heard the election results. But after visiting and talking with the Muslim Brotherhood, I am hopeful that ... we can have a relationship with Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood is a strong political voice."

But at same time, there is going to be mutual suspicion on both the U.S. and Brotherhood sides, Lynch predicts. The Brotherhood will likely realize that whatever sympathy it got from America for being oppressed by Mubarak won't continue unless the Brotherhood brings democracy to Egypt.

"I don't discourage these road shows," says Michael Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation, a progressive nonpartisan think tank. "But there's always that question that hangs over the interactions: just how representative are these people of a very parochial, more conservative organization?"

It's not just abroad that the Brotherhood finds itself on the defensive, but also on its home turf.

The Tahrirists

An increasing rift between liberal and leftist political groups and the Muslim Brotherhood has shaken Egypt since the Tahrir Square uprising. Over the past year, many "Tahrirists" have complained that the Brotherhood has hijacked their revolution. They fear Egypt will become a near-theocracy, an instant replay of Iran's 1979 revolution.

With the Muslim Brotherhood winning most of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections, and the even more conservative Salafist Party coming in a close second, opponents fear a backsliding on minority rights, especially those of women.

Nathan J. Brown, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, says Egypt's secular parties and young revolutionaries have lost the first major political battles of post-Mubarak Egypt. In the recent parliamentary elections, they only managed to secure a quarter of the seats in the People's Assembly and about 40 seats in the 100-member Constituent Assembly, elected by the parliament to draft the constitution. Many have withdrawn from the assembly in protest.

"We majorly failed," concedes Mahmoud Salem, a popular pro-democracy activist and blogger who tweets as "Sandmonkey." "The secular revolutionaries and leftists didn't focus on moving beyond Tahrir and engaging the streets, listening to the demands of the people. So right now, we have to reassess and plan before we move forward."

Leadership within the Brotherhood seems to have that process down pat, even while it's simultaneously trying to soften its fundamentalist image in the West.

"They have multiple discourses and they're playing to different audiences," says Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center in Qatar. "Is that not politics? There are different personalities and currents within the vast group of 300,000 members. They represent a broad spectrum of society."

This is what democracy looks like in Egypt, says Hamid.

"People should stop assuming democracy is good for the liberalization of society, women, and minorities. Democracy doesn't necessarily translate to more rights," says Hamid. "In fact, it could mean the opposite."

Backdoor deal?

Many Egyptians believe, even fear, that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, senior members of Egypt's military, have been brokering a behind-the-scenes deal to share power after the formal handover to civilian rule happens at the end of June. But if any deal was in the works, it seems to have hit major difficulties in recent days.

The military refused the Brotherhood's demands that SCAF fire the military-appointed cabinet and allow the parliamentary majority to form a government. Nominating al-Shater as a presidential candidate is seen as the group's boldest move in a recently escalating battle for power. The Brotherhood's critics now compare the group to the Mubarak regime, citing a lack of democracy within the organization. Breaking its pledge that it wouldn't field a presidential candidate is just more evidence that the Brotherhood wants power at all costs, critics say.

They also cite an internal crackdown on younger members who wanted change. Mohammed Abbas, a leading member of the Revolution Youth alliance, left the organization soon after the Tahrir Square uprising. "You don't have a say in the Brotherhood," he says, noting that many young Brotherhood members have since been forced to leave the organization for supporting the presidential bid of Abdel Moneim Fotouh, another former Brotherhood leader. "It's not a democracy."

Promises for Egypt's poor

Under a mantra of "Islam is the solution," the Brotherhood has maintained influence by providing social services like education and health care to the 40% of Egyptians who live under the poverty line.

In one of the many slum neighborhoods of Cairo, where the Brotherhood has provided social services for decades, a pregnant Alia Ali, 22, steps out of a maze of dilapidated apartment buildings. "It's a mess in this country. I don't even know what's happening anymore. We were going to support Hazem Salah Abou Ismail (a Salafist candidate), but then we hear the Brotherhood now wants us to vote for Khairat. When will this all be over?"

Her father, Ahmed, an unemployed mechanic and now cab driver, isn't a Brotherhood member, but voted for its candidate in parliamentary elections. "The Egyptian people are tools again in politics," he said, about to start his second shift of the day. "Nothing has changed."

While some Salafists have discussed their desire to push for Islamic banking, restrict the sale of alcohol, and censor art, the Brotherhood has pledged to respect basic individual liberties while guiding society in a more conservative direction.

"It will be tough to figure out ways, like with tourism, to welcome other cultures, but to also make sure they respect our identity as an Islamic state," admits Dina Zakaria, one of the Freedom and Justice Party's female advocates. "And while we don't impose the head-scarf, we believe, at the end of the day, it's crucial for women in Islam."

The Brotherhood for women?

Though the Brotherhood says women will share equal rights, often holding up spokeswomen like Asem and Zakaria as examples, critics point to an organization they say reflects Egypt's patriarchal history.

No women are represented in any of the movement's two main power structures -- the Shura Council and the Guidance Bureau.

In the past, members have defended separating men and women because, they say, that causes fewer problems. The Freedom and Justice Party offers more opportunities for women, argues Essam El-Erian, a senior leader. During the recent parliamentary elections, the party fielded about 75 female candidates -- more than any other party. Nine of the 498 newly elected parliamentarians are women, four of them from the party.

One of the group's well-known female foot soldiers, Zahraa al-Shater, is Khairat al-Shater's wife and the mother of their four children. When 22 senior Brotherhood figures were arrested in 2006 (including her father and husband), she launched a campaign of mothers and daughters against the court bodies trying the men. This, to her, is a step forward for women. "Women saved this organization," she resolutely proclaims. "It might not look like Western feminism based on secular notions, but we are empowered."

But even women in the group have given ammunition to critics' claims that the Brotherhood's policies are retrograde.

One of the group's parliamentarians, Azza El Garf, has been hit with bad press after a few colorful comments that she says were taken out of context. She said that all women should take cooking classes and that no sexual harassment exists in Egypt. (She stands by the latter remark, saying she's often walked home at 2 a.m., and has never once been assaulted.) And while the Brotherhood supports Egypt's ban on female genital mutilation, she recently came out against it, saying that a woman has a choice in deciding to undergo the practice.

The granddaughter of Hassan al-Banna, the late founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, feels differently. Sanaa al-Banna, 25, at work on her doctorate at Cairo University, left the Brotherhood a few years ago and has cut almost all communication with members. She is working with a separate activist group now.

"If I were a man, I still would have left. There's no freedom for either sex," she says. "The Brotherhood is becoming more and more like the NDP (the National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, which was quickly disbanded after his ouster). There's no transparency, no permission for the divergence of thoughts or critical thinking. It's their way or you're out."

"They wanted me to stay on the front desk, you know, the people the media talk to -- Khairat al-Shater's 'friendly to the West' public relations wing. But these people really have no say. I was the old Sondos," she says. "But I got out."

Asem on American TV

Back in New York, Asem finally decides what she'll wear for her debut on CNN (a fitted off-white blazer). She says she's nervous about what an American audience will think of her.

"We have the Egyptian streets and we're just trying to show secular Egyptians and the world that they shouldn't be afraid," she says, sure of her mission. "That's all, honestly."

She goes on "Starting Point," a talk-driven morning show hosted by Soledad O'Brien.

Will Cain, a conservative pundit, interrupts her as she's speaking. "One of the charges often made ... is you come, say stuff to us in English here ... and then go back to Egypt, speak in Arabic, and say just the opposite," he says.

She knew this question was coming. Her voice shakes and she's visibly nervous. She looks like a 24-year-old with a lot of responsibility.

Cain is wrong, she tries to say -- the Brotherhood's message is consistent. It stands for human dignity and freedom. It has expressed full commitment to the peace treaty with Israel. It wants a civil, democratic state.

Back at her hotel room, she reassesses her performance and checks in on Twitter.

"Some 'tweeps,' of course, didn't like what I said," she notes. "But one thing is for sure -- I do need to smile more. Next time."

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