After President Hosni Mubarak leaves office, Egypt plunges into an uncharted future. There is no clear path for new leadership, no political mechanisms to channel the energy of the streets, and no experience of political action in the decades the country has been under emergency rule.
Between the teetering government and the chaotic crowds is the one organization with the heft, popularity and influence to dominate the tumult. In Egypt and beyond, its name -- the Muslim Brotherhood
-- evokes either hope or fear.
It is a secretive Islamist organization that has raised troops to fight Israel, called for global jihad against infidels and martyrdom for its youth. A Muslim Brotherhood gang assassinated
former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel, and the Brotherhood inspired and maintains links with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda.
But as is so often true in the Middle East, there is another side as well. The Ikhwan
, as the Muslim Brotherhood is known, maintains a solid political base of middle-class Egyptians, runs a well-regarded free public education and health service, and has been a strong and consistent voice for political reform since it was founded in 1928.
Even as a banned organization, the Ikhwan has managed to poll about 20 percent in Egypt's rigged elections.
It was thrust into the spotlight Tuesday when President Mubarak, under growing pressure from massive nationwide demonstrations, announced he will step down at the end of his term in September. He called for political reforms to ensure a "peaceful transition of power,'' but did not specify what those reforms might be.
At best, as the White House clearly hopes, the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge in the months of political turmoil ahead as a voice of stability, broad political participation and moderation. At worst, some analysts caution, the Ikhwan could establish a hard-line Islamist state under Sharia, or Islamic, law; provide major financial and logistics support to terrorist groups; and even abrogate or disregard the peace treaty with Israel, plunging the region back into nerve-wracking armed confrontation.
Clearly the White House, where President Obama met with his top national security team Tuesday afternoon, is hoping for the former. A White House statement called for "an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.'' In response to a question Monday about the Muslim Brotherhood, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs endorsed
the participation in the political process of non-secular groups that renounce violence and agree to support the democratic process.
Gibbs didn't explain how the United States could ascertain the reliability of such assurances.
Nor was it clear Tuesday how sharply opposing views of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's powerful, secular military would be reconciled.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration "should not be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood,'' said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and frequent presidential adviser, who is a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center
for Middle East Policy.
But Riedel acknowledged that the ascension to power of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo would mean a "sea change in regional geopolitics.'' Even if a new government doesn't formally include the organization, a more democratic regime would have to reflect its views, which are more radical than those allowed under Mubarak.
This new government would likely be more critical of the United States and Israel. It could withdraw its permission for the U.S. military to transit troops and war materiel through the Suez Canal and to use Egyptian airfields and air space. And even if a new Egypt is reluctant to forgo the $3 billion in U.S. aid it receives for supporting the peace treaty with Israel, it could cause trouble along the border by repositioning its forces and facilitating the transfer of weapons into Gaza.
Living with the Muslim Brotherhood in power "won't be easy,'' Riedel wrote this week, "but it should not be seen as inevitably our enemy. We need not demonize nor endorse it.''
That's the positive spin. A darker view comes from analysts like Barry Rubin, a veteran Middle East scholar who is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
center, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
"There are no well-organized moderate groups with a big base of support" in Egypt, Rubin wrote this week. "Many of the non-Islamist 'moderates' are not so moderate. In sharp contrast to reformers in other Arab countries, many of the Egyptian 'democrats' are themselves quite radical, especially in terms of anti-American and anti-Israel thinking,'' Rubin wrote in his blog.
Indeed, one in five Egyptians believes suicide attacks are sometimes or often justified, according to a Pew Research Center poll
taken across the Arab world last summer. About the same percentage of Egyptians expressed favorable views of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
A separate Pew poll
released in December found that almost half of Egyptians support Hamas, the anti-Israel extremist group in Gaza. The poll suggested an opening for a strong Islamic government in Egypt: 95 percent of respondents said they want Islam to play a large role in politics, compared to 53 percent in neighboring Jordan and 45 percent in Turkey. At least three- quarters of Egyptians polled said they would support provisions of Sharia law
requiring stoning of adulterers, whipping and cutting off the hands of robbers, and the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion, Pew found.
Despite its moderate reputation, the Muslim Brotherhood espouses fierce anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric. In a recent sermon
, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Muhammad Badi, the Brotherhood's supreme guide, said the United States is immoral and therefore doomed to collapse, "withdrawing from Iraq defeated and wounded. . . . All its warplanes, missiles and modern military technology were defeated by the will of the peoples.'' He said Palestinians are preparing a third Intifada against "the Zionist entity'' and advised that "resistance is the only solution against the Zio-American arrogance and tyranny.''
That may be the future . . . or it may not. However the balance of power now turns in Egypt, the era of Sadat and Mubarak, with the moderation and stability it brought to the region, is clearly over. What emerges, said Riedel, "won't be your father's Egypt any more. In every capital around the world and especially in the Middle East, it will be a new game, more unpredictable than just a week ago.''