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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood seeks political party status

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Muslim Brotherhood: What's next?
  • NEW: U.S. officials are divided over the 83-year-old organization
  • NEW: Group was banned in 1954 after it was convicted of trying to assassinate Nasser
  • The banned group will apply to become a party
  • It says it does not plan to run a candidate for president

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood will apply to become a political party, it announced Tuesday.

The Brotherhood "envisions the establishment of a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and justice, with central Islamic values serving all Egyptians regardless of colour, creed, political trend or religion," it said in the statement.

Although officially illegal, the Muslim Brotherhood is regarded as one of the most organized groups in Egypt.

It has said it does not plan to run a candidate for president when elections are held to replace Hosni Mubarak, who resigned on Friday.

Although officially illegal, the Muslim Brotherhood is regarded as one of the most organized groups in Egypt. Experts estimate the group has the support of anywhere from 10% to 30% of the population. It has said it does not plan to run a candidate for president when elections are held to replace Hosni Mubarak, who resigned on Friday.

The Muslim Brotherhood: Fact vs. fiction

The group has sparked great controversy in the United States, where some see it as a non-violent, Islamic social welfare organization supportive of a democratic process while others call it a radical extremist group hellbent on creating a theocracy in Egypt.

President Barack Obama recently downplayed the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood playing a major role in Egypt, saying it is just one faction in Egypt that doesn't have majority support.

"There are a whole bunch of secular folks in Egypt, there are a whole bunch of educators and civil society in Egypt that want to come to the fore as well," the president said in an interview with Fox News. "And it's important for us not to say that our only two options are either the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed Egyptian people."

Others, however, distrust the Brotherhood's ultimate intentions.

"They are a powerful force at present, but my fear is that Islamist groups outside Egypt, seeing the opportunity in the current chaos, will flood them with support if they back an extremist view," said CNN national security contributor Frances Fragos Townsend, who was President George W. Bush's counterterrorism advisor.

And former CIA Director Mike Hayden said the Muslim Brotherhood, as the best organized opposition group in Egypt, could "enjoy a disproportionate power in shaping the new government. The question is: Will it become more radical?"

Still, a current U.S. official characterized the Muslim Brotherhood as being "not as extreme as al Qaeda is."

"It's an organization that supports a civil state which is based in large part on Islamic law," said the official. "But they do tend to eschew violence and work within the political process."

The official cautioned about ambiguity when it comes to Egypt. "There are lots of unknowns now with Egypt," said the official. "You really can't make a call on anything, whether Mubarak is going or staying or how the Muslim Brotherhood figures into the political process.

And in a recent article in the Daily Beast, former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel wrote that Americans should not fear the group.

"They should not be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Living with it won't be easy, but it should not be seen as inevitably our enemy," said Riedel.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 to oppose British control of Egypt with Its goal the creation of an independent Islamic state. Although it allegedly engaged in assassination and other violence against the British and supported the coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952, the Brotherhood has been illegal since 1954, when it was convicted of attempting to assassinated Nasser, charges the group denied.

Nasser ruthlessly suppressed the group, and his successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, continued the repression. The Brotherhood subsequently renounced violence, is engaged in providing social services to the populace, opposes the peace treaty with Israel and supports democratic elections.

On its English language website, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood calls for establishing an Islamic state in accordance with the provision of Islamic Sharia law.

Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Muslim Brotherhood "ought to be a welcomed force within Egyptian politics" if it accepts full rights for women and for religious minorities.

But his colleague at the council, Isobel Coleman, said the group hasn't done that, pointing to statements by the Brotherhood that neither a woman nor a non-Muslim could ever lead Egypt.

But Republican Congresswoman Sue Myrick of North Carolina worried that the government did not see the danger.

"I'm very concerned that they're using the peaceful protests in Egypt for a power grab and that we in the government doesn't seem -- we don't seem to grasp that threat in the way it concerns me," she said at a congressional hearing last week. "The Brotherhood isn't a danger just because they're terrorists, but because they push an extremist ideology that causes others to commit acts of terrorism."'

The 83-year-old organization has never been placed on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations and officially renounced violence in the 1970s. The organization was a minor player in the demonstrations that toppled Mubarak.

But the U.S. chief intelligence officer raised a stir when he referred to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a "largely secular" organization in response to a question from Myrick at the hearing.

"The term 'Muslim Brotherhood' is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam," said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. "They have pursued social ends, a betterment of the political order in Egypt."

Clapper's office later clarified the director's comments.

"In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak's rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation -- (Clapper) is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."

CNN's Pam Benson contributed to this report