Veteran journalist Charles Sennott recently returned from Tahrir Square, where he filmed material for a documentary on the Egyptian revolution.
In Revolution in Cairo, which will air on PBS's Frontline on Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST, Sennott examines what role the Muslim Brotherhood will play in the future of Egypt and how it may influence the political future of the country.
Though the group was absent during initial Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square, it took on a larger role as the uprising continued — helping to organize emergency medical clinics, setting up checkpoints to prevent supporters of former President Hosni Mubarak from instigating problems, and participating on the front lines of the revolt. And much of their participation, Sennott says, was due to the interest of young members of the organization.
"The youth movement within the Muslim Brotherhood saw that the people their age — the 20-somethings in Tahrir Square — really had something. They were part of this youth movement and were excited about it," he says. "[And initially] the Muslim Brotherhood in its entirety would not come along with them. But they did allow the Muslim Brotherhood youth to work with other youth to get it rolling. The [younger members] have a lot of street cred [now] within the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood for pulling the big sleeping giant that is the Muslim Brotherhood into this demonstration."
Once the Muslim Brotherhood started participating in the revolution, Sennott says, it became one of the leading organizations that helped sustain the revolution.
"They brought a lot of organizational skill," he says. "If you looked carefully, you could see that the Muslim Brotherhood was playing an important role, but you would miss the meaning of the revolution if you thought it was theirs. It really wasn't. It really was pushed on by all of these aspects of society. But going forward now, [when we ask] what does this revolution mean, the Muslim Brotherhood and all of that organizational structure they revealed in the demonstrations will come into play and raises the question: 'What role will they play in the new Egypt?' "
The Brotherhood, which claims to have 600,000 members, has been officially banned in the country since 1954. Earlier this week, the Brotherhood said it intends to form a political party once democracy has been established in Egypt.
But, Sennott says, it is less of a political movement than a social movement in the country.
"Their intention is to change Egyptian society to become more Islamic — to accept Sharia law and to live as good Muslims," he says. "And there is a kind of cult of patience of taking things slow — of making sure no one pushes too hard, of understanding that this will take a long time."
That patience, he says, was part of the Muslim Brotherhood's strategy during the revolution — when it took a step back and tried to position itself as a centrist force in the country instead of a leading player in the uprising. Sennott says that was no accident.
"I think it was very well-rehearsed [and] very disciplined certainly in [their] approach toward this revolution because they did not want to allow the Mubarak regime to paint this as a Muslim Brotherhood revolution," he says. "And it wasn't."
Sennott describes an event he saw hours after President Mubarak stepped down, when he witnessed members of the revolutionary youth council — including members of the Muslim Brotherhood — creating what he calls "a birth certificate of a free Egypt."
"There were people there from the April 6 youth movement, from the secular opposition parties, Muslim Brotherhood was in the tent, a Coptic Christian woman with a secular party was there," he says. "And it was really quite a moment. They were there with flashlights beaming down on a ripped-off piece of cardboard from a water box. ... It was the Muslim Brotherhood representative who became the scribe and just began drafting sentences [which laid out several goals for the new government of Egypt]. And all of them were working together to come up with these sentences and it really was quite a moment to see these young people giving voice to what it meant. ... You really felt like you were inside a revolution."
Despite their religious differences, there were no tensions between members of the council inside the tent, Sennott says.
"This was one of the really exciting and beautiful aspects of this revolution, to see young people within Egyptian society coming together from a lot of different walks of life," he says. "The 30-year truth of the regime of Mubarak was that he made sure that never happened. He kept people divided. There was a concerted attempt not to allow people to pull together like that. And I think [those in Tahrir Square] were thrilled and energized by that, and you could feel it."
Charles Sennott is the executive editor and co-founder of GlobalPost. He was previously a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, serving as the Globe's Middle East bureau chief from 1997 to 2001 and the Europe bureau chief from 2001 to 2005.