What's the alternative to an autocratic Egypt? If you ask embattled President Hosni Mubarak, he will tell you a well-rehearsed tale of an American ally slipping into the hands of reactionary Islamists who would threaten the existence of Israel and diminish the reach of American power in the region.
"If I resign now, there will be chaos," Mubarak said last week. "And I'm afraid the Muslim Brotherhood will take over."
Yikes. Everyone knows that little scares the American public more than the idea of empowered Muslim brothers. It's an oft-repeated meme among Western opinion-shapers -- one that defies reason and seems entirely inconsistent with the facts on the ground.
To borrow a line from one of Mubarak's old friends, there are things about the Muslim Brotherhood that we know we know, and things that we know we don't know.
We know that the Muslim Brotherhood has a long, checkered past. Founded in 1928 as a response to Western meddling in Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood initially embraced violence as a means to achieve Islamist objectives. The Brothers' early, violent period reached a peak around midcentury, when they sent fighters to Palestine, allegedly orchestrated bombing attacks on Jews in Cairo, assassinated an Egyptian judge they found disagreeable, backed a failed coup, and may have played a role in an attempt on President Gamal Nasser's life. Since then, the Brotherhood has operated under an official ban on the organization, punctuated with occasional, severe crackdowns.
In the 1980s, the Brotherhood initiated efforts to join the mainstream of Egyptian politics, forming alliances with other opposition parties. By the 1990s, the Brotherhood functioned as the principal opposition to Mubarak's rule. When the Brotherhood won 88 parliamentary seats, or 20 percent of the People's Assembly, in 2005, Mubarak's regime answered the threat to his authority by detaining hundreds of Brothers and erecting legal obstacles to the Brotherhood's political participation.
The Muslim Brotherhood has long renounced violence as a political tool and condemned the 9/11 attacks. Detractors claim that the Brotherhood retains ties to terrorists, but the evidence is thin. Some contacts may remain with Hamas, an organization labeled "terrorist" by the United States government, which began as a branch of the Brotherhood in Palestine. Critics also point out that Osama bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was once a Brother.
As demonstrated by their 2005 capture of 88 parliamentary seats, the Brotherhood commands a substantial minority of public support in Egypt. Before the youth-led protests began on Jan. 25, the Brotherhood was considered the only organized opposition to Mubarak's regime -- a field now crowded with potential competitors.
In the Egyptian elections presently scheduled for September, Brotherhood leaders have insisted that they will not field a candidate for the presidency. It has even been suggested that the Brotherhood may not seek a majority in parliament.
The Brotherhood's platform may be unique among Islamic political organizations in the Middle East, most often compared to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development party. The Brotherhood's embrace of human rights is rooted firmly in its history on the bloody end of government crackdowns. On other issues, like the role of women in public, the Brotherhood is divided, with fault lines generally corresponding to generational divides. The question remains as to whether the old guard would stand a chance against reform-minded Brothers amid political unrest fomented by young, mostly secular professionals.
For its strategic prowess, the Brotherhood receives mixed reviews. Scholar Scott Atran argues that the Brotherhood lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Egyptians for "dithering" at the beginning of the present protests. Others, including Khalil Al Anani, professor of Islamic studies at Durham University, praise the strategic decision not to appear at the forefront of the uprising. "The Brotherhood don't want the west to diminish this revolution, and hence they don't want to give the west any excuse to support Mubarak," Al Anani told the Guardian recently.
To channel Rummy yet again, the Muslim Brotherhood is not not a threat, but they may not be a threat. They may be Muslim, they may be conservative, and they may harbor political aspirations, but 1979 Iran this is not.