Once notorious for political killings and anti-Semitic rhetoric, the Muslim Brotherhood represents the most potent threat to the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood also passionately opposes what it sees as U.S. domination of the Middle East.
Although the Brotherhood has renounced violence, many people believe it tacitly--and sometimes financially--supports Islamic extremists throughout the Middle East. "The government here is always watching us to see if we're developing violent tendencies," said Muhammad al-Hudaibi, 82, the newly elected general guide, or leader, of the Brotherhood. "They arrest our members and try to torture information out of them... but there's nothing violent in our plans."
The Brotherhood has not always been so restrained, and its violent offspring include Egypt's Al-Jihad and Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah groups, which united to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981 for making peace with Israel. Leaders of those groups have since joined forces with Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network to target the United States and Israel.
Members of the Brotherhood also broke away to form Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Palestinian groups that are fighting Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Hamas was founded on Muslim Brotherhood's principles, but they're in much different circumstances now," Hudaibi said. "They're in a war."
Some political analysts say the modern Brotherhood, which was banned in 1954, has become toothless and impotent, living on its reputation. They say the group has been overly cowed by the government and has been unable to resolve a dispute between its elderly leadership and feisty rank and file. "They're kind of Islamists Lite," said Issandr el-Amrani, editor of the Cairo Times weekly. "Basically, they've called for a truce with the government."
In a rare interview at his home in the Heliopolis section of Cairo, Hudaibi said that he opposed a U.S.-led war in Iraq but that he would not call young Brothers to jihad, or holy war, to join it. "War today requires lots of training, preparation and scientific expertise, so maybe someone who goes to help would actually be more of a burden," he said. "And what would they fight with? A rock?"
Hudaibi said the Muslim Brotherhood had condemned the Sept. 11 attacks - he called them "intolerable to God" and "un-Islamic" - although he said he was not convinced that al-Qaeda and bin Laden were responsible. He said they did not have the technical expertise for such an attack.
The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 on the idea that Muslims had a duty to reform their government and societies according to Islamic principles. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was killed, presumably by a government agent, in 1949. Hudaibi's father succeeded him.
A former appeals court judge, Hudaibi spent six years in prison during the 1960s for giving money to the families of imprisoned Brothers. He was elected to head the Brotherhood last month, replacing Mustafa Mashhour, who died after a stroke. Mashhour's open-casket funeral procession - a restrained and lightly policed event - drew more than 150,000 mourners to the streets of Cairo.
The Brotherhood is allowed to organize the occasional peace march or small protest, usually against Israel or the United States. Meanwhile, it quietly organizes and recruits through traditional institutions in Egyptian society - student groups, mosques, charities and professional organizations.
The Egyptian Doctors' Syndicate is known to be a bastion of the Brotherhood leadership, and half the 34 opposition members in Egypt's 454-seat parliament are aligned with the Brotherhood.
The Mubarak government has been ruthless in suppressing any political or religious opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Human-rights groups and Western governments say the government has used torture, secret courts, mass arrests, and a set of draconian "emergency laws" to neutralize the group.
Hudaibi said he knew that security agencies read his mail, tapped his phones, and followed him around. "Not only me," he said. "Many of us in the country."
Decades of struggling against the government, Hudaibi said, have been exhausting. "Of course I get tired, and it's also exhausting to the country," he said. "Because of the government pressure, we've lost so many good people with good ideas. They step aside or they're put in a corner. If there was a little more freedom in Egypt, like the ability to establish real political parties, all these people could contribute so much to our country."