— After maintaining a low profile in protests largely by secular young Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition force, appeared to be taking on a more assertive role Thursday, issuing a statement asking for President Hosni Mubarak to step aside for a transitional government.
"We demand that this regime is overthrown, and we demand the formation of a national unity government for all the factions," the Brotherhood said in a statement broadcast by Al Jazeera.
The Obama administration has spoken cautiously about the future role of the Brotherhood, which has long been banned by Mr. Mubarak’s government, saying only that all parties must renounce violence and accept democracy. But one of the few near-certainties of a post-Mubarak Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as a powerful political force.
The unanswered question, according to experts on the region, is whether that will prove a manageable challenge for the United States and Israel or a catastrophe for American interests in the Middle East.
The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is the oldest and largest Islamist movement in the world, with affiliates in nearly every Muslim country and adherents in Europe and the United States. Its size and diversity, and the decades-old legal ban that has kept it from genuine political power in Egypt, make it difficult to sum up simply. As the Roman Catholic Church encompasses leftist liberation theology and conservative anti-abortion advocacy, so the Brotherhood includes both practical reformers and firebrand ideologues.
Which of those tendencies might rise to dominance in a new Egypt is under intense discussion inside the Obama administration, where officials say they may be willing to consult with the Brotherhood during a political transition. But Bruce Riedel, a veteran observer of the Muslim world at the Brookings Institution, said the United States has no choice but to accept the group’s role.
“If we really want democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a big part of the picture,” said Mr. Riedel, who was working as the Egypt desk officer at the Central Intelligence Agencywhen Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981. “Rather than demonizing them, we ought to start engaging them now.”
American politicians and pundits have used the Brotherhood as a sort of bogeyman, tagging it as a radical menace and the grandfather of Al Qaeda. That lineage is accurate in a literal sense — some Al Qaeda leaders, notably the terror network’s Egyptian second-in command,Ayman al-Zawahri, have roots in the organization. But Qaeda leaders despise the Brotherhood precisely because it has renounced violence and chosen to compete in elections.
“The Brotherhood hates Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda hates the Brotherhood,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “So if we’re talking about counterterrorism, engaging with the Brotherhood will advance our interests in the region.”
Mr. Hamid said the Muslim Brotherhood’s deep hostility to Israel — which reflects majority public opinion in Egypt — will pose difficulties for American policy. Its conservative views on the rights of women and intolerance of religious minorities are offensive by Western standards. But he said the group was far from monolithic and was divided between those who will never accept Israel’s right to exist and those who accept a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestineexist side by side.
“Yes, in their heart of hearts, they hate Israel,” Mr. Hamid said. “But they know they have to live in this world and respect the geopolitical scene.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by an Egyptian schoolteacher and imam, Hassan al-Banna, as a grass-roots association whose goal was to promote the reform of Muslim society by a greater adherence to Islam, through preaching, outreach and provision of social services.
“It was a bottom-up, gradual process, beginning with the individual and ultimately reaching all of society,” said Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, a political scientist at Emory and author of “Mobilizing Islam,” a 2002 book on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s roughly analogous to the evangelical Christian goal of sharing the gospel. Politics were secondary.”
But al-Banna did speak of jihad, too, as a struggle against colonialism and Zionism, Ms. Wickham said. Quotations from the Brotherhood founder have been highlighted in recent years by Western critics who portray the Brotherhood as a militant threat.
In the 1970s, after years of brutal repression by the state, then-Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat permitted the Brotherhood to operate quietly and to open a Cairo office, and the Brotherhood formally renounced violence as a means of achieving power in Egypt. The group did not, however, reject violence in other circumstances, and its leaders have endorsed acts of terrorism against Israel and against American troops in Iraq.
A prominent Brotherhood thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who was imprisoned by the Egyptian government and executed in 1966, was an important theorist of violent jihad and a spiritual progenitor of Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical preacher now hiding in Yemen. But the Brotherhood took a different direction after Qutb’s death, and Qaeda leaders came to hold the organization in contempt.
A milestone in the Brotherhood’s evolution in Egypt came in 1984, when its leaders decided to compete in parliamentary elections. Since then, it has been alternately tolerated and repressed in Egyptian politics, where most estimates of its actual support begin at 20 percent of the electorate.
“The paradox has been that the better the Brotherhood performs, the more repression it has attracted,” Ms. Wickham said. After it won 88 seats in parliament in 2005 elections, the Mubarak government responded with a new crackdown.
In an interview just before the current wave of protests began in Egypt, Essam el-Erian, a leading figure in the Brotherhood, said the group did not seek to monopolize power. “We want an atmosphere for fair competition now that can allow us to compete for power in the future,” Mr. Erian said. “And we want stability and freedom for people, not chaos.”
The Brotherhood, whose leaders are mostly far older than the protest organizers, joined the demonstrations only after they were under way. The hesitancy may reflect in part the grim history of the state’s ruthlessness, said Abdel Halim Qandil, the general coordinator of Kifaya, a secular opposition movement.
“The Brotherhood was rebuilt over the last three decades as a social religious movement,” Mr. Qandil said. “They are having difficulty transforming that into a political movement.”
Mr. Qandil nonetheless estimated that in a free election, the Brotherhood would win about a third of seats in parliament, support that he suggested might ebb as competing parties gain attention.
Asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said on Monday that the United States would work with any group that showed “adherence to the law, adherence to nonviolence, and a willingness to be part of a democratic process, but not use that democratic process to simply instill yourself into power.” Some experts on the Brotherhood said the group has met the requirements of nonviolence and participation in elections in Egypt for decades.
But even among specialists, the degree of uncertainty about the Brotherhood’s future role is striking. Several admitted to uncertainty about whether participation in governance would have a moderating effect on the group, or whether moderation may prove to have been a convenient false front to be cast off if the group achieved real power.
Skeptics point to the example of the Palestinian group Hamas, the Brotherhood offshoot that has often used terrorism. Ms. Wickham, of Emory, said Hamas is a national resistance fighting Israeli occupation and thus not a model for a future Egyptian Brotherhood.
But she admitted that after 20 years of studying the group, whose internal deliberations are secret, she finds it difficult to predict what it might do after Mr. Mubarak leaves power. Is the Brotherhood willing to be one party among equals in Egyptian politics, or is it merely biding its time before seeking a monopoly? The answer is elusive, Ms. Wickham said, even though the Brotherhood “has a 30-year behavior as actors in a competitive political process.” That is why it is crucial that Egypt’s electoral laws and constitution be rewritten during a transition, as widely discussed, to prevent any party from seizing absolute control.
“Institutional checks and balances are critical,” she said.