THE BLOG

Where Is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The obvious missing player in the demonstrations in Egyptian are "the Brothers." Even as protesters chant "Allah hu Akhbar" in the streets, there is no visible presence of the Brothers in any kind of leadership roles, no Muslim Brotherhood banners and flags being waved. This is extremely interesting.

As of Saturday morning (U.S. time) it seems clear that Mubarak is on the way out -- his first time ever appointment of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president -- whose background includes deep involvement in Israel and Palestinian issues -- is one indication that he, himself, plans to leave, but the real sign was when the Army had to be called in, an implicit concession that the government's security forces had failed. The soldiers, in turn, are being greeted by the protesters with flowers and smiles, and every indication is that at least the soldiers on the ground are sympathetic to the protests.

This morning a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, gave an interview to Al Jazeera. His statements were fascinating: He insisted that it would be inappropriate for any particular party or faction to attempt to take charge of this popular revolution, called on protesters to avoid damage to state property -- echoing earlier calls from other religious leaders -- and insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood is both interested in being part of a unity government and does not intend to put forth a presidential candidate.

In other words, the Brothers want to come in from the cold. Technically an outlawed movement, the Muslim Brotherhood created the two-fold strategy familiar from Hamas (essentially the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza) and Hezbollah: supply social services and some form of rule of law in the face of a dysfunctional government, on the one hand, while supporting extremist Islamic politics on the other. It is clear that the Brotherhood sees this revolution as a chance to become part of the mainstream government, if not in control of its actions.

Fotouh also talked about other things. For one thing, he talked about the Mubarak regime as a puppet of the U.S. -- not exactly a surprise, and a clear if indirect reference to the fact that Egypt's relationship with the west, and especially with Israel, is likely to undergo some significant revision. For another, he talked about Egypt's past greatness. This is a theme we have heard a lot in these protests, and it has multiple dimensions. The motivation behind these protests is fundamentally economic; people reject Mubarak's dictatorship because it has failed to deliver goods and services, employment and stability, not out of an abstract commitment to democratic principles. But there is also a sense that, under Mubarak, Egypt's place in the world has slipped. In the Arab League, their leadership is challenged by Syria. In the Muslim world, they are challenged by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in other words, sees a chance to become a directing force to guide Egypt back to greatness as the leader among Muslim nations. It looks increasingly likely that they will get their wish. This will, indeed, be a genuine expression of the democratic will of the Egyptian people. But revolutions once begun take on a life of their own, and in the long run the Muslim Brotherhood values democracy for strategic purposes, not as a good in itself. From the Brothers' perspective, the ultimate goal is religious rule. That puts them in conflict with the urban, middle-class, young people who started this revolution. And who will hold the Army?

I am watching pictures right now of thousands and thousands of protesters who have stopped what they are doing to pray in the streets. It is impossible not to feel the excitement of a people aroused, and the pictures of tanks painted with anti-government slogans are fantastic. This is a true moment of rapid history... but where it goes form here is very, very far from clear, and there may be as much to fear as there is to welcome.