Mohamed Beltagy: Egypt's Human Bellwether
Mohamed Beltagy: Egypt's Human Bellwether
Friday, January 20,2012 09:54

On a recent winter evening, a gray Mitsubishi sedan made its way slowly down the narrow main street of Qalyubiya, a farming town in the Nile River delta, hemmed in on all sides by shouting fruit vendors, bumping donkey carts, strings of colored lights and tiny bakeries and butcher shops. Election posters were plastered to every available surface, and a voice squawked loudly over a distant, tinny loudspeaker: “God willing, we will all soon live in an era of social justice. The revolution taught us that we are all equal.” As the sedan reached a crowded election rally outside a mosque, the back door opened and out stepped a striking man with deep-set eyes and a broad forehead. “He is here!” someone shouted. “The hero of the revolution!” Almost instantly, a murmur rippled through the crowd, and the man was surrounded by adoring fans. A pair of burly aides grabbed his arms and bustled him through. “God is great!” the crowd chanted as he smiled and waved, making his way toward a brightly lighted stage. “Freedom and Justice! Tomorrow we will be strong!”


The man of the hour was Mohamed Beltagy, one of the central protagonists of the Egyptian Revolution and perhaps the country’s most versatile and dynamic politician. He is a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood who, unlike his peers, is also beloved by many liberals for his fierce support of the protests in Tahrir Square. But in a country divided ever more sharply between Islamists and secularists, his ability to straddle both worlds has only grown more precarious. He has been attacked by hard-line protesters for his association with the Brotherhood and dressed down within the Brotherhood for his willingness to side so vocally with the revolutionaries. Even his appearance sets him apart: at 49, Beltagy looks sleek and youthful next to the Brotherhood’s bearded, pot-bellied, somnolent top men. He wears dark suits and natty ties, like a flashy Cairene lawyer, but he also has a prominent zabiba, or prayer callous, in the middle of his forehead, the ritual badge of piety in Egypt.


“Why did the police and army attack the protesters so brutally on Sunday?” he asked the thousands assembled in Qalyubiya, referring to recent military crackdowns in Tahrir Square. “They did it to create a crisis. The military could have stopped this massacre, but they did not.” As the crowd began chanting its approval, Beltagy went on, making demands that went well beyond anything the Brotherhood had called for up to that point. “We must hold presidential elections immediately,” he shouted, “so that the military can go back to its barracks. We want a real president, a real parliament, with the power to monitor every security institution, including the military council. We refuse all guardianship!” The crowd rose, giving him a standing ovation long before he was finished. Days after that speech, the Brotherhood’s party, Freedom and Justice, swept the elections for Egypt’s Parliament, where they now appear to control about half of all seats. It was the latest in a string of victories by newly unleashed Islamist parties across North Africa. Beltagy, the movement’s most liberal and charismatic leader, is a natural diplomat and seems poised to play a major role in the next phase of Egypt’s chaotic struggle toward democracy.


First, however, he must survive within the Brotherhood itself. The group has waited more than 80 years for this moment; its aging leaders are famously cautious and pragmatic, and therefore profoundly uneasy with Beltagy’s confrontational stand toward the military council. The Brotherhood’s secretive and hierarchical structure is notoriously opaque to outsiders, but several members and analysts of the movement told me they believed that Beltagy would soon be pushed to the side. The leadership, they say, will not tolerate his outspokenness and risk a military crackdown, no matter how popular that stance is with the younger generation and on the Egyptian street.


In other words, Beltagy has come to personify the Muslim Brotherhood’s identity crisis as it moves, after decades underground, to become the dominant political group in Egypt. Will it rein him in or cast him aside in order to pursue a narrow Islamist agenda? Can it even afford to strike down such a popular figure, now that it is competing for the first time in an open, democratic forum? Khalil Anani, one of the keenest analysts of Egyptian Islamic movements, told me that the Brotherhood is likely to face a critical choice in the coming months. “There is a delayed confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military,” he said, “and when it happens, much will depend on how well they cooperate with liberal and secular forces.” Beltagy is essential to securing such cooperation, but the Brotherhood could also choose to cut out the liberals and make a deal with the military, Anani said, accepting the military’s continued dominance in exchange for concessions on religious issues. This possibility, sometimes called the Saudi scenario, is what gives liberals nightmares: the prospect of an Egypt ruled by military men and mullahs.


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