CAIRO — Osama Abdel Hadi was born into the Muslim Brotherhood. His father, a history professor, was respected within the Islamic movement and Hadi grew up steeped in piety and resistance to Hosni Mubarak’s secular police state.
He prayed in Cairo’s ancient mosques and knew the names of Brotherhood members held in Egypt’s jails. The group was his spiritual and intellectual buttress, and, amid the failings of other parties and opposition ideologies, he carried the Brotherhood’s precepts as he entered university to study political science.
Those bonds have now been loosened. The revolution that last year upended Mubarak heralded the Brotherhood’s political ascendancy and near control of parliament. But the world’s largest Islamic organization is torn by conflicts between religion and politics, and calls from its young to be more pluralistic and modernize its voice for a new Egypt.
“We need unity, not an atmosphere where you’re the majority and everyone else is against you,” Hadi said. “It’s not good for the nation and puts enormous pressure on the Brotherhood. If the country fails, it’s all on them.”
The rise of the Brotherhood mirrors a pattern of Islamists coming to political prominence, most notably in Tunisia, since the uprisings of the “Arab Spring.” This narrative is reshaping the Middle East, but it is revealing internal friction, political missteps and failure to put forth a vision that transcends Islamic designs and speaks to Christians, other non-Muslims and liberals.
These challenges epitomize the campaign of Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi, a conservative pressing for sharia, or Islamic law, to be embedded in the country’s new constitution. To win office in next month’s election, Morsi must appeal to Salafi fundamentalists while not pushing away moderates and liberals.
Many Egyptians wonder whether Morsi can fashion a political Islam to solve the country’s deep economic problems. As recently as a few weeks ago, any Brotherhood candidate would have been regarded as the likely next president. Much has changed, and some now fear that the group is peddling more religion than public policy. Morsi is a front-runner but the race is tightening, especially with the popularity of secularist candidate Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister.
“The Brotherhood has enemies because it hasn’t been inclusive,” said Hadi, a slight man in a checkered shirt whose quick hands seem to move along words as he speaks. “This is not the time for the Brotherhood to exclude revolutionaries and activists.”
Talks have intensified within the group to more clearly separate its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, from its religious and community works. Since its founding in 1928, the Brotherhood has been respected for its Islamic and social programs, such as schools and clinics. The fear among many members is that the Brotherhood’s taste for politics is jeopardizing its soul.
“Our presence in parliament and trade unions has sapped a lot of our energy,” said Ashraf Abou Zeid, a Brotherhood member in Cairo. “Before the elections, we were present in the street and all our efforts were focused on social work and services.... But all of a sudden politics has taken too much of our strength, numbers and focus.”
The Brotherhood was late coming to the protests that ousted Mubarak, worried that if the revolt failed the group would be persecuted anew. But its grass-roots reach and organizational skills quickly made it the country’s dominant political force. The shift from opposition to the chambers of government, however, has been clumsy and erratic; the Brotherhood has broken promises and appeared politically opportunistic.
To allay fear that it was accumulating too much power, the Brotherhood had vowed not to run a presidential candidate, but reversed itself and entered Khairat Shater, a multimillionaire and former political prisoner. When he was recently disqualified from the race, the organization turned to backup nominee Morsi, head of the Freedom and Justice Party.
Running a candidate “has affected our credibility,” said Zeid, a 53-year-old doctor who has six sons and three daughters. “The spirit that people had for us was somehow shaken.”
Zeid was active in student unions in the late 1970s when the government allowed Islamists a degree of freedom. He joined the Brotherhood while in medical school in 1982, and since the revolution has learned the tricky dynamics of Egyptian politics and the hold remnants of the old guard have on the media.
“There was a strong media campaign to defame us after fielding a presidential candidate,” he said. “There were about 20 television channels all moving against the Brotherhood and we could only respond through our one channel and one newspaper.”
The Islamists have yet to outmaneuver their most potent obstacle: the country’s ruling military council. The Brotherhood has cooperated with the generals, at times holding back its street muscle by boycotting anti-army protests, leading to criticism that it was seeking to advance its political ambition at the expense of the revolution.
But parliament has yet to match the military’s power. This has led to acrimony as Islamists have moved to expand their reach in a new constitution and the army has countered to preserve its authority.
“The Brotherhood’s leaders are keen on survival,” Hadi said. “But it took a while for them to learn that you have to impose your own rules if you want the upper hand. They learned this after being burned by the military. That’s why they decided to run their own candidate.”
Morsi, who in 1982 received a doctorate in engineering from USC, faces his sharpest challenges from Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, whose progressive strand of Islam led to his expulsion from the Brotherhood last year. Both men are likely to siphon away voters disenchanted with the Brotherhood’s recent tactics, including its attempts to control the panel drafting the constitution.
“The concurrent blunders of the Brotherhood have exposed its limited political skills,” Khalil Anani, an expert on Islamist groups, wrote in the Egypt Independent newspaper. “Not only have these mistakes distorted the movement’s image but, more importantly, it weakened its position in the game with its contenders.”
But Hadi believes that despite its setbacks, the Brotherhood represents the stirrings of a political Islam that will ultimately take hold in Egypt and across the region.
“This is the identity of the country,” he said. “The West shouldn’t clash with this ideal, because this goal will be reached. It’s who Egyptians are.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.