"Changed by the system"?
By the 1990s, despite the off-again, on-again repression by Mubarak's regime, the Brotherhood had completed what many observers say was a transformation. Step by step, its leadership renounced its violent past, engaged in politics, and tried to reinvent itself as a collection of community organizers who operated clinics and food banks, building a network of Islamic banks and companies. Writing last week in Foreign Affairs, Carrie Rosefsky Wickham noted: "Although the Brotherhood entered the political system in order to change it, it ended up being changed by the system." In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats—20 percent of the Parliament—and probably could have won even more had it run more candidates.
All of a sudden, the Brothers had emerged as Egypt's most potent opposition force. Though they still faced the wrath of the secret police—and in last year's parliamentary elections, the game was so rigged that the Brotherhood virtually opted out—they became vocal supporters of liberalizing Egypt's calcified system, and it made common cause with other pro-democracy groups.
Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on political Islam, is optimistic that the Brotherhood has evolved from its fundamentalist roots: "Their agenda is to make Egypt better," he told Salon recently. "And their conception of what's good and bad has a religious basis. So that means increasing religious observance, religious knowledge. It also means probably drawing more heavily on the Islamic legal heritage for Egypt's laws. They don't want to necessarily completely convert Egypt into a traditional Islamic legal system. But if the Parliament's going to pass a law, they want it to be consistent with Islamic law." No doubt many officials and members of the Muslim Brotherhood would endorse this characterization.
But it's also fair to ask if Brown's interpretation is too charitable. In 2007, the Brotherhood released a draft political program that included several very troubling proposals, including the idea that Egypt's government be overseen by an unelected council of Islamic scholars who would measure the country's laws against the Koran and sharia to make sure governance would "conform to Islamic law." Since then, various Muslim Brotherhood officials have also made conflicting statements about anything from the role of women to the treatment of non-Muslim minorities.
In the end, there's no getting around the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is, if not an anachronism, a profoundly reactionary force. Its views on marriage, the family, homosexuality, and the like are distasteful to most Western minds and many Egyptian ones. And it harbors a strong current of overt anti-Semitism, along with a penchant for conspiracy theories. Despite Egypt's drift toward a more conservative Islamic outlook since the 1970s—which paralleled similar trends across the Muslim world—the Egyptian people, especially the middle class, may in the end not be receptive to the Brotherhood's message.
It's also worth remembering that when the Egyptian uprising began in January, the Muslim Brotherhood was not among the leaders. At the forefront of the movement were young Egyptians, including those organized around a popular Facebook page memorializing the murder of a young man named Khaled Said in Alexandria. They were joined by a panoply of secular, socialist, Nasserite, and pro-democracy groups, and eventually by Mohammad ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nearly all of the movement has been relentlessly secular, though it admittedly gained a great deal of momentum when the Muslim Brotherhood—which had initially held back—threw its weight behind the protests.
So Could They Take Over Egypt?
Because the Muslim Brotherhood is still a secretive, cell-based organization, and because it operates mostly underground, there are no reliable estimates either of its strength or its potential electoral base. Analysts have placed its membership as low as 100,000 nationwide and as high as a million or more. Similarly, some experts say that in a free and fair election the Brothers would win as little as 10 percent of the vote or as much as 20 to 40 percent—and their share will probably be higher the sooner the election is held, since they are by far the best-organized force at the moment.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CIA analyst Daniel Byman notes that whatever its numbers, the Brotherhood's potential role is not to be discounted. "Most Egyptians are not members of the Brotherhood, but the group probably represents a healthy plurality of the country, and its strength goes beyond its popularity," writes Byman. "The Brotherhood is highly organized and has street power, enabling it to out-organize or intimidate its weak potential rivals. In parts of the Middle East where relatively free elections have been held, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, this mix of popularity and superior organization has served Islamist parties well."
What Does This Mean for US Foreign Policy?
Whatever its ultimate political beliefs, there are several things that the Muslim Brotherhood is not: It is not Al Qaeda or the Taliban. It is a conservative, even ultra-orthodox Islamist group, but it's irresponsible to compare it to the terrorist groups and armed insurgencies that have preoccupied American foreign policy since 2001. Nor is the Brotherhood the Egyptian equivalent of the Islamic force that seized power in Iran in 1979. For one thing, political conditions are much different; for another, the Brotherhood lacks the network of highly politicized clerics that helped Ayatollah Khomeini succeed in 1979. The group itself is almost entirely made up of laymen, often highly educated, and scholars of Islamic law, not members of the clergy.
To the extent that the Muslim Brotherhood's power in Egypt grows, it is certain to infuse the country with a stronger strain of anti-American and anti-Israel politics. Officially, the Brotherhood has proclaimed that it will abrogate or shelve the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed in 1978, although in practice doing so might be difficult. It's also likely to align Egypt more closely with other Islamist groups in the Arab world, especially Hamas, which began as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. That would be part and parcel of a growing anti-American trend throughout the region, which has been picking up steam since the US invasion of Iraq and the American refusal to challenge Israel's stonewalling of a Palestinian state. If after Mubarak Egypt does indeed move away from the United States, it will only be joining Turkey, Lebanon, and even Iraq and the Gulf states.
One thing is certain. Having been an important player in Egypt's political landscape for nearly a century, the Muslim Brotherhood is a force to be reckoned with. It cannot be ignored, and no amount of Glenn Beck-style hyperventilating will change that.