Area Egyptian Americans view Islamic party’s rise, U.S. visit with hope, suspicion

View Photo Gallery — Egyptian Americans view Islamists’ rise with hope, suspicion: Among the Washington area’s Egyptian Americans, the Muslim Brotherhood has aroused a mixture of suspicion and hope. The well-educated community includes many democracy activists as well as several thousand Coptic Christians, a religious minority that has long been persecuted. 

By , Friday, April 6, 4:32 PM

When Egypt’s autocratic regime collapsed early last year amid an unstoppable wave of protest, Sherif Mansour leaped at the chance to help promote and shape a nascent democracy in his Muslim-majority homeland. Mansour, who works at the District-based human rights group Freedom House, traveled to Cairo, applied for a government permit, opened an office and hired local staff.

But in December, the new Freedom House branch was forcibly shut down by Egypt’s interim government, along with 16 other international nonprofits, and its staff was charged with the crime of running an illegal foreign operation. Ever since, Mansour has watched with growing concern as conservative Islamist groups capture more and more of the political space that burst open with the Arab spring.

(Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST) - Naesah Mohamed, left, Monera Hussein, center, prepare a special meal as Amira Abdellatif, right, watches at the Mansour home in Fairfax.

“I know what a stolen revolution looks like,” said Mansour, 32, whose wife’s family is from Shiite-ruled Iran, and whose father was forced to flee Egypt a decade ago for his moderate Muslim teachings. “The liberals in Iran made so many sacrifices for their revolution, and the Islamists stole it,” he said. “I see signs of that happening in Egypt. We need to keep fighting to make sure it doesn’t.”

But lately, things have gotten more complicated and nuanced in Egypt’s fast-changing political scene. The Muslim Brotherhood, a once-banned extremist Sunni movement, recently won nearly half the seats in Parliament and has adopted a new, democratic vocabulary. Last week the group announced it was running a candidate for president, and this week it sent a delegation to Washington, where it has been presenting a moderate-sounding agenda to U.S. officials, journalists and academics.

Among the Washington region’s Egyptian Americans, this flurry of unexpected moves by Egypt’s most influential Islamist group has aroused a mixture of suspicion and hope. The well-educated community includes many democracy activists, such as Mansour, as well as several thousand Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt that has long been persecuted by both dictatorial regimes and Islamic extremists.

“People here in D.C. have a lot of questions and concerns — about women, about minority rights, about how the new constitution will be written. I hope they will provide some good answers,” said Mohammed el Menshawy, an Egyptian American scholar at the Middle East Institute. “It was easy for them to say Islam is the solution when they were in the opposition. Now they will have to find solutions for health care, jobs, education, and speak the language of the globalized world.”

Many Egyptian immigrants are deeply skeptical of the Brotherhood’s apparent transformation, embodied by its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party. These doubters are convinced that the group, long known for its secrecy, discipline and iron commitment to Islamic rule, is simply changing its stripes because it sees a chance to win power at the polls amid growing competition from other forces. Presidential elections in Egypt are expected in June.

Members of the area’s Coptic community are among the most suspicious, in part because their community in Egypt has been ostracized for so long. They say such harassment has intensified as political unrest unleashed ugly rivalries among a gamut of forces — religious and secular, military and civilian. On New Year’s Eve 2011, a Coptic church service in Egypt was firebombed, killing 21.

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