Just what role will Egypt's wily, ever-evolving Muslim Brotherhood play in a post-Mubarak era? Is it really the sinister, underground, subversive political force that could potentially hijack the Egyptian peoples' revolution? Or is it an anachronistic, outdated Islamist dinosaur of another bygone era -- so pre-Twitter and 20th century?
As the Brotherhood thrusts itself into a central role in any post-Mubarak transitional coalition, the Brotherhood's rabid ideological brand of Islam is raising the specter of an Egypt potentially slipping into the hands of Islamic extremists.
Much is now being written about the Brotherhood's past as a predicator of Egypt's future.
Indeed, while much of Egypt's modern history has been shaped by the Brotherhood's ever-present and at times lethal role in Egypt's society, nothing occurring in Cairo's Tahrir Square today guarantees that this canny fox of an Islamic political movement will be able to seize the spoils of the revolution.
Ironically, despite the Brotherhood having the most dynamically organized political apparatus in Egypt; it seems to be less directing the revolution as much as slowly positioning itself to be the beneficiary of it. The Brotherhood, along with everyone else, was caught flat-footed by the events that sparked Cairo's "winter-awakening."
Some quick cliff notes on the Brotherhood...
The Muslim Brotherhood is the great granddaddy of Islamist-oriented political movements. Founded in 1928, the MB has spawned identical offshoots throughout the Arab and Muslim world... including in Palestine where Hamas traces its roots right back to the "Hood."
Throughout its history the Brotherhood has championed the conversion of Egypt into a truly Islamist society by imposing Shariah as the only law of the land.
Its philosopher-kings include the Karl Marx of Jihadi-oriented Islam Sayyid Qutb, whose brother Mohammed was Osama Bin Laden's Saudi professor, as well as Ayman al Zaharawi -- the evil doctor and #2 to Bin Laden, who broke with the Brotherhood, accusing it of going "soft" by rejecting violent jihad and subsequently founded Ga'aamat al-Islamiya -- the domestic Egyptian equivalent of Al Qaeda.
The Brotherhood joined forces with the colonels of the Egyptian military, led by then Col. Gamel Abdul Nasser to overthrow King Farouk in 1952. Nasser and his military then turned on the it... arrested and tortured its leaders. Unlike its terrorist spawns, the Brotherhood, according to its own protestations, continuously renounces the use of violence to achieve its utopian conservative Islamist goals.
However, that is not to say that the Brothers have not resorted to violence. Indeed, they tried to assassinate not only Nasser, but other Egyptian officials since the 1952 revolution, and succeeded in assassinating Anwar Sadat in 1981 in a Brotherhood-inspired coup attempt pursuant to the fatwa issued by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the World Trade bomber) after Sadat had traveled to Jerusalem and signed a peace treaty with Israel.
What is the status of the Muslim Brotherhood in today's revolutionary Egypt?
The Muslim Brotherhood's 8th leader today is its Supreme Guide (Secretary General), 67-year-old Mohammed Badie, who leads its Shura Council -- the governing body of the Brotherhood which, in turn controls the largest political and charitable organization in Egypt -- largely built and operated through Egypt's mosques.
Badie is a veterinary professor who served 9 years in Egypt's dreaded prisons for being a unrepentant Brotherhood brother. He harkens back to the traditionalist ideology of the Brotherhood's founding ideologues, but cloaks his beliefs in more temperate rhetoric. But he orchestrated the departure of 'Brotherhood moderates.
In recent internal Shura Council elections, the Brotherhood rejected several prominent reformers who were determined to steer it into a more modern Islamist political party such as Turkey's AKP party -- not a good omen for reformers.
When Badie was installed as Supreme Guide, not in attendance at the inauguration ceremony were Mohammed Habib and Abdel Mounim Abou el-Fattouh, two of the more moderate Brotherhood members who recently lost seats on the organization's governing body. Their absence indicated continued division about the direction of the Brotherhood and of the legitimacy of recent internal elections.
First to the bad Brotherhood-related news... there is plenty to worry about when it comes to the Brothers -- the devil is that no one truly knows as to its strength and future in Egypt.
Given its status as an illegal organization, there are only rough guestimates how many Egyptians would identify themselves as either members or support of the Brotherhood until its cells emerge from their secret hiding places.
That poses a real dilemma for anyone trying to accurately predict the Brotherhood's political strength in any free and fair election, of which there hasn't been any in Egypt.
Moreover, since 1928, its virulent paleo-jihadi salafist ideology remains a cornerstone of its political charter. It's Arabic motto remains unchanged: "Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope... Allahu akbar!"
And despite efforts to sanitize its salafist rhetoric, the Brotherhood is patently undemocratic in its rigid orthodoxy. Although banned, it fields candidates for Egypt's parliament as "independents" and have, by objective observers, accounted for garnering at least 20% of the parliamentary vote in 2005. No one knows what would happen if it were permitted to field more candidates in a free and fair election.
It's preoccupation with Egypt's parliamentary elections is merely a means to an end. The Brothers have been consistent in their goal to use whatever political avenues avail themselves to monopolize power, and then, pass whatever man-made laws are necessary to usher in Allah's ultimate law on the land.
Also, let us not forget that the Muslim Brotherhood is the primary benefactor and best friend of the terrorist organization, Hamas, which it spawned. However it may be cloaked in inoffensive-sounding language, the Brothers share Hamas' unmitigated hatred of Jews and Israel. And it is the hub of a largely underground radical Islamist political wheel, with many spokes in each major Arab nation... a true transnational Islamic political apparatus.
This is just the tip of a deep, foreboding iceberg. It would be short-sighted and naive for anyone to assert that as currently constituted, the Brotherhood has defanged itself to accommodate its future to a globalizing, more peaceful moderate Islamic institution.
But despite these signs, there is some hopeful news...
First, the ultra-conservative Badie is no firebrand, charismatic Brotherhood leader like its founder, Hassan al- Banna or an Egyptian equivalent of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni.
Badie's non-inflammatory statements suggest he is trying to find a way to keep the Brotherhood unified despite its competing factions, one faction (defeated in those internal Shura elections) determined to evolve the Brotherhood into a more pan-Arab political movement in the guise of Morocco's Justice and Development Party, or Turkey's AKP Party, both of which had also been declared illegal in their prior histories.
Also Badie was elected ironically because he had no public persona for fear of attracting more of Mubarak's ire against the Hood. Consequently, the Brotherhood currently lacks a popular face to ride the magic carpet of the peoples' revolt.
Moreover, many Egyptians I ask are unanimous in their assessment that the Muslim Brotherhood has not modernized sufficiently to attract many younger Egyptians to its ranks. Jihadi-bound Egyptians have rejected the Brotherhood's rejection of violent Jihad; alternatively the more educated youth of Egypt who are leading the revolution are suspicious of the Brotherhood because of its anti-democratic, Shariah intolerance.
Finally, so far at least, Badie is on record asserting that the Brotherhood would not field a candidate in the planned September, 2011 presidential elections. But that public declaration was before the revolution, and it is hard to fathom why the Badie would take that position if he were not concerned about the Brotherhood's prospects. Of course, he may reverse himself.
No matter what its real membership, history suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood is a potent force ruthlessly able to maneuver, survive and thrive. In the coming days, Mubarak's continued obstinacy provides the 'Hood more time to shape events on the ground to its purposes to gain political advantage from the disorganized idealists who may be unwittingly serving Egypt up to its waiting platter.