As Egyptians clash over the future of their government, Americans and Europeans have repeatedly expressed fears of the Muslim Brotherhood. "You don't just have a government and a movement for democracy," Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, said on Monday. "You also have others, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, who would take this in a different direction." The previous day, House speaker John Boehner expressed hope that Hosni Mubarak would stay on as president of Egypt while instituting reforms to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists from grabbing power.
But here's the real deal, at least as many Egyptians see it. Ever since its founding in 1928 as an Islamic rival to western-inspired nationalist movements that had failed to free Egypt from foreign powers after World War I, the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to revive Islamic power in Egypt and throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Yet in 83 years it has botched every opportunity. In Egypt today, the Brotherhood counts some 100,000 adherents out of a population of over 80 million. And its failure to support the initial uprising in Cairo on Jan. 25 made it marginal to the current Arab revolt.
This error was compounded when the Brotherhood threw in its lot with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat and Nobel Prize winner. A spokesman for the Brotherhood, Dr. Esam el-Erian, told Al Jazeera television, "Political groups support ElBaradei to negotiate with the regime." But when Mr. ElBaradei, strode into Tahrir Square to claim leadership of the revolt, few rallied to his side despite the enormous publicity he was receiving in the Western press.
The Brotherhood realized that in addition to coming late to the arena, it might be backing the wrong horse. On Tuesday Dr. Erian told me, "It's too early to even discuss whether ElBaradei should lead a transitional government or whether we will join him." This kind of flip-flop makes most Egyptians scoff.
When the army allowed hundreds of pro-Mubarak supporters and plainclothes police through barricades yesterday to muscle out anti-government demonstrators, the Muslim Brotherhood may have gained an opportunity. It might be able to recover lost leverage by showing its organizational tenacity in resistance to the new attempts to suppress the demonstrators. But the Brotherhood did not arrive at this historical moment with the advantage of wide public favor. Such support as it does have among Egyptians -- an often cited figure is 20 to 30 percent -- stems from the many decades of suppression of secular opposition groups that might have countered it. The British, King Farouk, Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat all faced the same problem that, Hisham Kassem, a newspaper editor and human rights activist, described playing out under Mr. Mubarak. "If people met in a cafe and talked about things the regime didn't like, he would just shut down the cafe and arrest us, "Mr. Kassem said. "But you can't close mosques, so the Brotherhood survived."If Egyptians are given political breathing space, Mr. Kassem told me, "the Brotherhood's importance will rapidly fade. "In this uprising the Brotherhood is almost invisible," Mr. Kassem said, "but not in America and Europe, which fear them as the bogeyman."
Many people outside Egypt believe that the Brotherhood gains political influence by providing health clinics and charity for the poor. But the very poor, like the million who live in Cairo's cemetery, are not politically very active. And according to Dr. Abdel-Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, a former member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Council, the Brotherhood has only six clinics in Cairo, a city of 16 million by day and 20 million by night. Many of the others are Islamic because most of the people are Islamic. The wealthier businessmen who often sponsor them tend to shun the Brotherhood, if only to protect their businesses from being cramped by government disapproval.
Although originally the Brotherhood was organized into paramilitary cells cells along European (fascist and communist) models in order to readily disperse when the power against them was too strong and to re-unite when that power weakened,, today it forswears violence in political struggle. This has made it a target of Al Qaeda's venom. In January 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former leader of Egypt's Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda's leading strategist, blasted the Brotherhood's willingness to participate in parliamentary elections and reject nuclear arms. "You falsely affiliated with Islam," he scolded. "You forget about the rule of Sharia, welcome the Crusaders' bases in your countries, and acknowledge the existence of the Jews who are fully armed with nuclear weapons, which you are banned to possess." The next day, Dr. el-Erian responded by putting al-Zawahiri in the same camp as nationalist dictators who oppose any peaceful participation or transition to democracyin non-violent political opposition. True, al-Qaeda's ideological mentor, Sayyid Qutb, was a Muslim Brother who preached jihad against infidels and "unclean" Muslims; but Qutb had few followers in the Brotherhood, as al-Zawahiri has stressed.
People in the West frequently conflate the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. And although their means for gaining influence are very different, even many Egyptians suspect that they share a common end that is alien to democracy. When I asked Dr. Erian about this, he retorted that the United States and Mr. Mubarak had conspired after Sept. 11 to "brainwash" people into thinking of all Muslim activists as terrorists, adding that "the street" knew the truth. The street, however, manifests little support for the Brotherhood. Only a small minority of the protesters in Tahrir Square joined its members in prayers there (estimates range from 5 to 10 percent), and few Islamic slogans or chants were seen or heard.
Obviously the Brotherhood wants power and its political positions, notably its stance against Israel, are problematic for American interests. "Israel must know that it is not welcome by the people in this region," Dr. Erian said. "The people cannot, of course, rush to war, except if Israel launches a war. But the relationship that allowed Israel to back the Mubarak dictatorship must end."Moreover, the Brotherhood will probably have representatives in any freely elected government. But it is because democracies tolerate disparate political groups that they generally don't have civil wars, or wars with other democracies. And because the Brotherhood itself is not monolithic -- it has many factions -- it could well succumb to internal division if there really were a political opening for other groups in Egypt.
What we are seeing in Egypt is a revolt led by digitally informed young people and joined by families from all rungs of society. Though in one sense it happened overnight, many of its young proponents have long been working behind the scenes, independent of the Brotherhood or any old guard opposition. Egyptians are a pretty savvy lot. No one I talked to believes that democracy can be established overnight (well, almost, 18-year-olds think it's possible, of course). The Brotherhood leadership talks of a year or two of transition, although that may reflect a vain hope of using that time to broaden its popular support enough to reach a controlling plurality. The more common assessment even among democracy and human-rights advocates is that the military will retain control -- Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief newly named vice president, will be acceptable to Egyptians if the army gets rid of Mubarak now -- and over the next decade real democratic reforms will be instituted.
"Egypt is missing instruments essential to any functioning democracy and these must be established in the transition period -- an independent judiciary, a representative parliament, an open press," Mr. Kassem said. "Egypt is entirely lacking these three essential states of democracy. If you try to push democracy tomorrow we'll end up like Mauritania or Sudan," both of which in recent decades have had coups on the heels of democratic elections.
A military in control of the scene from the background -- for a while -- is probably the best hope for a peaceful transition. "Let the U.S.A. stay away," urged Mr. Kassem, who insisted that he is pro-American and abhorred the Brotherhood. "They are only bungling things with calls for immediate reforms and against the Brotherhood. We are handling this beautifully. Even a military leader with an IQ of 30 wouldn't go down the same path as Mubarak because he would understand that the people of Egypt who are out in the streets are no longer apathetic, their interests are mostly secular, they are connected, and they will get power in the end."
If America's already teetering standing among Egyptians and across the Arab and Muslim world is not to topple altogether, the United States must now publicly hold Mr. Mubarak responsible for the violence he has unleashed and privately inform the Egyptian army that it cannot support any institution that is complicit. But there is little reason for the United States to fear a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. If Egypt is allowed to find its own way, as it so promisingly began to do over the past week, and the problems that America and Europe most fear from this unhappy region - violent extremism and massive emigration - could well fade as the disaffected youth who most fuel these fears at last find hope at home.
Scott Atran, an anthropologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan and John Jay College, is the author of Talking to the Enemy.
This post is a modified and extended version of an op-ed that originally appeared in the February 3, 2011 edition of The New York Times.