CAIRO — He doesn't seem a radical or a troublemaker, but to the Egyptian government, Abdel Fattah Rizk, a surgeon with a graying mustache and hands pink from scrubbing, is a man to be watched.
He belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, the most potent opposition group in the country. Hundreds of its members are in prison and many more are lying low. But even as security forces scour the nation for dissent, the Brotherhood is everywhere, from the shacks of handymen to the estates of millionaires and the halls of parliament.
The government of President Hosni Mubarak paints the Brotherhood as an extremist organization with terrorist ties determined to impose strict Islamic law across Egypt. The group says it renounced violence decades ago, and its real threat to the ruling party is its appeal to the educated and middle class, who view the regime as corrupt and too beholden to the West. Although there are radicals among its members, the Brotherhood espouses a moderate Islam to reshape Middle East politics.
That is a challenge for Washington. Egypt is a trusted U.S. ally that has kept peace with Israel for 30 years. A rise in power by the Brotherhood, which supports armed resistance against the Jewish state, would upset that balance. The group also could instigate unrest and damage prospects for a smooth government transition after the 81-year-old Mubarak dies or steps down.
But Egypt's repression of the Brotherhood and other opposition groups weakens the Obama administration's credibility in the region. Washington has stressed wider political freedoms in Egypt but, wary of the Brotherhood's intentions, has not harshly criticized Mubarak for his country's poor human rights record.
"Belonging to the Brotherhood is a state of faith," said Rizk, an official with the Egyptian Doctors Union. "You help people when you become a devout Muslim, and that helps the country. Government pressure depressed and scared away many of our members. But most of us stayed.
"When I started with the Brotherhood back in college, you could easily count us," he added. "Now we have hundreds of thousands of supporters."
The Brotherhood is facing growing pressure from within and without. About 400 of its members, including several top figures, have been arrested in the latest crackdown. The organization is contending with internal divisions between conservatives and reformers and between those who support the Brotherhood's political ambitions and those who argue it should return to its roots as a religious and social movement.
The recent arrests appear to be a move by the ruling National Democratic Party to weaken the group ahead of 2010 parliamentary elections. Members of the Brotherhood, which is officially banned, ran as independents in 2005 and won 20% of the seats in parliament. Another strong showing next year could complicate what analysts believe is the NDP's plan to have Mubarak's largely untested son Gamal succeed his father.
The Brotherhood is working with other groups to block the succession. The organization claims it does not want to govern Egypt, but its street popularity gives it leverage secular opposition groups lack.
"I would not be exaggerating to say that Gamal Mubarak's succession to power will not take place without brokering a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing them to participate in political life and granting Gamal the popular cover he urgently needs," Khalil Anani, an expert on political Islam, wrote recently in the Daily News Egypt.
Some believe the recent purge is retaliation for the group's support of the Islamic militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli offensive in Gaza last winter, the Brotherhood condemned the Mubarak government for doing little to protect Palestinians. The criticism damaged Mubarak's standing and affirmed in the mind of the government that the group, which was banned in the 1950s after an assassination attempt by its militant wing, has links to radical Islamic movements that can endanger regional stability.
"We have been effectively supporting our Palestinian brothers, especially since the Israeli attacks on Gaza," said Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the Brotherhood's supreme leader. "That has angered many powers in and outside Egypt, and since then the government started detaining large numbers of our members and middle management figures. The regime was pressured by many powers in the West to do so."
The Brotherhood's larger challenges are domestic political aspirations and its lack of vision. It does poor public relations, often sending out muddled messages. Its rigid ideology limits freedom of expression and women's rights, and the group is against allowing a Christian to ever serve as president of Egypt. Critics say the Brotherhood doesn't exactly know what it wants to be at a time Egyptians are looking for an inspiring alternative to the 28 years of Mubarak's rule.