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Muslim Brotherhood: Radical Islamists Or Reluctant Democrats?

One winner in the recent unrest in Egypt is likely to be the Muslim Brotherhood, but what role will it play?
For more than 30 years, the specter of the Iranian Revolution, with the overthrow of a strategically vital and friendly government by fundamentalist Islamists, has stalked Western policymakers on the Middle East.

Now, the dark fear of a calamitous repetition has been brought resoundingly to life by the turmoil gripping Egypt.

In place of the pro-Khomeini forces that ushered in the rule of the theocratic mullahs in 1979 Iran, in today's Egypt we have the Muslim Brotherhood -- at least in the world view expressed by some Western leaders.

Even The Name Strikes Fear

The very name -- redolent in liberal minds of an intolerant, unbending brand of religious authoritarianism -- seems to strike dread in their hearts.

Amid temporizing calls for an "orderly transition" from the autocratic -- and pro-Western -- regime of President Hosni Mubarak, U.S. officials have indicated that President Barack Obama harbors misgivings that any new government might be dominated by the Brotherhood or other Islamist forces.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced that concern bluntly on January 30 when he said, "Certainly we would not want to see a government based on the Islamic Brotherhood."

Even actor Omar Sharif, Egypt's most famous international celebrity and co-star of David Lean's epic 1962 film "Laurence Of Arabia," displayed disquiet over the future while calling on Mubarak to resign. "I don't want the Muslim Brotherhood. They were trapped and now are starting to come out," Sharif told Reuters. "They have 20 percent of the population," he added, alluding to the Brotherhood's most recent electoral showing, "and it's frightening for me."

Fears have been further fueled by reports that hundreds of jailed Brotherhood members were among thousands of prisoners who escaped during a mass breakout from four Egyptian prisons over the weekend. They included 34 of the organization's leading figures, arrested in a crackdown by the Mubarak regime as it tried to quell last week’s mass protests.

Founded In The 1920s

It is quite a bogeyman status for what is Egypt's oldest and biggest Islamist organization. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna initially to spread Islamic morals and good works, the group later became embroiled in the fight to end British colonial control and drive Western influence out of Egypt. Defined by its slogan, "Islam Is The Solution," its expressed aim is to create a state based on Shari'a law.

Yet, says Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, the Brotherhood's radical history should not blind Western policymakers to the fact that it has evolved into a pragmatic modern force. He says he believes the group's main objective is to expel Mubarak -- who has exploited international and domestic fears of its goals to brutally suppress membership.

"The Muslim Brotherhood wants to get rid of Mubarak. Also, the Brotherhood wants to play a key role in the political process, no doubt about it," Gerges says. "But the Muslim Brotherhood has made it very clear; they are not equipped; they are not ready to govern Egypt, so the question is not whether [the] Muslim Brotherhood wants to seize power."

Accepting ElBaradei ...

As evidence of the Brotherhood's new realism, commentators point to its acceptance of the Nobel laureate and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, a conspicuously secular individual, as an opposition figurehead to lead negotiations for Mubarak's removal. The Brotherhood's leaders have adopted a deliberately low profile and avoided playing a leadership role in the upheaval, analysts say.

Maha Azzam, an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, says the organization has taken a moderate reformist line both before and during the current protests:

"The stance of the Muslim Brotherhood has been and is at the moment one of a call for political reform and an inclusive political order that includes all political parties," Azzam says. "You need to remember also that when ElBaradei was calling for signatures for his Facebook [page] calling for reforms, the Muslim Brotherhood helped him collect those signatures. So there are common interests and I think at this stage, they are willing to work together to bring down the regime."

That tone of reason and compromise is stressed by Mohamed Habib, a former deputy leader of the Brotherhood, who rejects suggestions that the Brotherhood's aim is to create an Islamic theocracy based on Iran.

"No, of course [not]," Habib says. "We want a democratic government based on genuine political plurality and peaceful circulation of power -- a government which considers the people as the source of power and authority. We believe in separation between, judicial, legislative, and administrative institutions in [the] state."

Relations with the United States, he says, should remain friendly as long as they are "based on mutual respect and equality, which results in the welfare, peace, and security of both nations."

...But Not Yet As The Face Of New Egypt

Yet, just as principles can be open to compromise, so too does pragmatism have its limits. While the Brotherhood is happy to recognize the liberal ElBaradei as a de facto opposition leader, it is much less certain about him as the long-term face of the new Egypt.

Asked by RFE/RL if the group is supporting ElBaradei as Egypt's next president, Habib pointedly stops short.

"No. We are of course against the personalization of the issue that way," he says. "There must be a transition government, a government of salvation. There is no observation against ElBaradei being a member of that government. But as the demonstrators demand, before establishing such a government, the president should resign."

Other Brotherhood figures have dismissed Western fears of an Islamic state. Kamel el-Helbawy, another of the group's senior figures, told Reuters that Egypt was entering a "new era of freedom and democracy." "That's more important than declaring that a 'new Islamist era is dawning,' because I know Islamists would not be able to rule Egypt alone," he said. "We should and would cooperate -- Muslims, leftists, communists, socialists, secularists."

Whither Camp David?

The elephant in the room for Western leaders is the Brotherhood's stance on the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel, the issue that cost Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, his life to an Islamist assassin. The movement has said it would put the matter to a referendum if it took power.

Habib, perhaps reflecting the Brotherhood's acceptance that it is unlikely to be governing alone, suggested the matter should be decided by a freely elected parliament:

"This is an issue in which any government should return to the legislative institutions that elected by people in free, fair, and transparent elections," he said.

So far, so democratic. Yet inexact as the parallels between Egypt today and Iran of the 1970s may be, Western politicians will be mindful that the Iranian Islamic republic was heralded by democratic means -- in the form of a popular referendum vote. Moderate words alone are unlikely to exorcize the ghosts haunting the West.

Radio Free Afghanistan's Sultan Sarwar contributed to this report