Egypt Elections: Renewed Street Clashes Pose Dilemma For Popular Muslim Brotherhood

11/21/2011 09:10 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011

CAIRO -- For three days, protesters -- mainly young, urban and secular -- have taken to Tahrir Square, the site of the original uprising that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak from power in February. Nine days ahead of the national elections scheduled for November 28, almost ceaseless clashes between rock-throwing civilians and riot gear-clad security forces armed with tear gas and rubber bullets have wounded more than 1,000 people and killed more than 24. The central square, once a rallying point for a euphoric people's democratic aspirations, has come to resemble more of a battle zone of national frustrations.

In the months since the revolution, party politics have fractured Egypt's opposition. Many revolutionaries felt that the main goal of the uprising -- to end an autocratic and arbitrary regime -- had not been achieved, since the temporary military junta that took over for Mubarak was prone to much of the same behaviors as before.

This is a developing story. See below for the latest updates.

The elections scheduled to take place later this month will only elect a parliament, while the Army has repeatedly delayed handing over executive powers to civilian control.

The Muslim Brotherhood voiced its dissatisfaction with this state of affairs in a massive, peaceful demonstration against the Army's rule on Friday in Tahrir Square, but disappointed revolutionaries, including many of its own, by not seeing it through the following days of tumult.

On Sunday morning, Ahmed Nazili, a Muslim Brotherhood youth leader, stood on the eastern edge of Tahrir Square, at the foot of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, surveying the skirmishes about half a block away and venting his frustration over his party's refusal to support the demonstrations.

"A few days ago, I would have told you that Egypt was in a political struggle and clash that was very bad for the revolution," Nazili said. "What happened [on Saturday morning]" -- when police forcibly cleared the last few protesters from Friday's event, setting off the present fighting -- "lifted the veil on the lie that [the military council] are protectors of the revolution."

Dressed in a yellow pullover and a white polo shirt, Nazili said he had been in the square all night and was planning to stay for as long as he could.

But while many of the revolutionary and liberal candidates have suspended their campaigns in the past few days, especially after the Army engaged in a brief but brutal sweep of Tahrir Square on Sunday evening, the Muslim Brotherhood had not. The conservative Islamist organization, which by most counts has the largest following in the country, had opted instead to focus its energy on the upcoming elections.

On Monday, the movement's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), announced for the first time that it will, in fact, suspend political campaigning, but it was not yet clear whether the Brotherhood would endorse the street demonstrations or merely freeze overt campaign activities.

On Monday, Egypt's state television also reported that the Cabinet has submitted its resignation.

As he stood in Tahrir on Sunday, Nazili, 33, saw his party's indecision as a major obstacle to a revolution that many feel has not yet been completed.

"The Brotherhood has so far decided it will not participate," he said with disappointment. "But I as an individual felt I must come, because I believe we must protect the revolution, and the continuation of the revolution. This is our duty at this moment, and not to just set up chairs in an air-conditioned hall."

Periodically, the police, firing volley after volley of tear gas, would surge forward, causing a flood of combatants to come rushing furiously past, but Nazili hardly budged.

"Don't worry, don't worry," he said calmly, as he carried on speaking.

"Look, one of the main problems was that the stepping down of Mubarak came before we had a new leadership -- this was a huge problem," he went on. "Now, one of our main goals is to create a revolutionary support front, but the Brotherhood has not participated because of the stubbornness of some of the elderly leadership."

For days, as the skirmishes in Tahrir have heated up, the party establishment made its position clear, sending messages via Facebook and Twitter that have been ambiguously worded but plainly anti-demonstration.

When Mohammed Badie, the "general guide" of the Brotherhood, took to his Twitter page on Sunday to discuss the protests, he wrote that while he condemned the use of force against "peaceful protesters," all sides must use more restraint and refrain from damaging property.

In a remark that seems to have been primarily directed at the protesters, he added, "I call for all those loyal sons of Egypt to be extremely patient and not to allow our enemies, and those who want to delay our great revolution, to be allowed to do so."

In a visit Sunday to the headquarters of the FJP, The Huffington Post was told that the party's position was not to encourage any attempts to interfere with the stable and effective exercise of the election, a thinly veiled way of saying that the protests should cease.

The only newspaper available at the party headquarters was a single copy of the state-run Al-Gomhurriya. Its lead headline: "Tens of Injuries At Clashes Between Protesters And Police; Security Source Says Police Keeping Calm Despite Assault On Them From Protesters."

"They say that any escalation in the streets is against the revolution, and that elections are the only way forward," Nazili said. "But I'm against that strongly."

It's hard to say how substantial a portion of the Brotherhood is represented by people like Nazili.

Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist political parties with the Brookings Doha Center who has been in Cairo for the past week, said that in a recent conversation with an FJP official, the subject of street protests didn't come up once.

"There was no way the Brotherhood was going to support the Tahrir protesters yesterday," Hamid told The Huffington Post. "That's not what the Brotherhood does. The Brotherhood is a smart and cautious movement, and they're not going to put their weight behind a small group of protesters. That's the last thing they want to do right before election day."

But, Hamid went on, "There definitely is a tension between some of the younger members and the older leadership. I don't think that most Brotherhood youth have that position [of supporting the protestors], just a certain subsection of youth who tend to be in Cairo or Alexandria."

Nazili, a marketing consultant by trade, conceded that he could not quantify how much of the party supported his viewpoint -- "a large amount of those under 40," he said -- but he added that if it doesn't more forcefully back the street movements, the party risks alienating even diehard supporters.

"Unfortunately a large segment of the people over time are losing faith in the Brotherhood, because their policies are translated to them as 'They don't care about anything but winning parliament,'" he said. "We have good principles but bad marketing."

This may have been the calculus that led to Monday's announcement by the FJP to suspend its campaign.

Over the weekend, the stirrings of discontent at the Brotherhood's refusal to condone the protests, particularly among some youthful members of the party and breakaway movements (including the ex-Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian Current Party), were beginning to get through to the Brotherhood's leadership.

Two members of the Egyptian Current movement have been killed in the course of the street clashes, including one who died Sunday night in Tahrir.

On Monday morning, Mohamed el-Beltagi, one of the foremost rising figures in the movement, wrote on his Facebook page that the youth in the square have a right to be angry, and that the Brotherhood should review their stance on the protests in Tahrir Square.

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