02/14/2011 03:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wanted: A Nuanced View of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

Islamists are not ordinary Muslims. Yet ordinary Muslims have had to endure decades of injustice because of them. Islamists are the reason the West has accepted and supported the worst dictatorships in the Arab world. Islamists are one reason America gives Egypt millions of dollars a day in foreign aid.

It doesn't take much imagination to picture Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak behind closed doors, planning his exit with Vice-President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, both of whom are as Mubarak as Mubarak. "Promise reform!" Mubarak tells them, "but move slowly - and above all - never stop reminding the West how dangerous the Muslim Brotherhood is."

The first question is just how different the Egyptian government will be under the leadership of Omar Suleiman and the military. The bigger question is what a post-Mubarak era will look like. This has become an important talking point in both American and European media because of the West's fear of another Iran, of another fundamentalist Islamic state. Unlike its American counterpart, however, the European media appears much less apprehensive of the Muslim Brotherhood, believing experts such as the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, who calls it "conservative and non-violent," and "poorly understood - especially in the West."

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been illegal but tolerated for 60 years. Today it has more than 300,000 members and runs numerous institutions, including hospitals, schools, banks, businesses, foundations, day care centers, thrift shops, social clubs, and facilities for the disabled. The organization's nonviolent stance has resulted in rebellious breakaway groups from the movement, including the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and Al Takfir Wal Hijra. And it has important enemies such as Osama bin Laden who accuses the Egyptian Brotherhood of betraying the jihad ideology of Sayyid Qutb.

In the last three decades, the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood has increased its advance into the political mainstream through alliances with other opposition parties such as the Wafd party in 1984, and the Labour and Liberal parties in 1987. In 2000, the Brotherhood won 17 seats in the People's Assembly. Five years later, it won 20% of the seats through an alliance with independent candidates.

In reaction to this democratic behavior, the Mubarak regime responded with full-scale repression. The Egyptian constitution was re-written to outlaw political activity based on any religious underpinning; independent candidates were banned from running for president; and anti-terrorism legislation was introduced, giving security police unlimited power to detain suspects, e.g., any man with a beard. Thousands of suspects have been harassed, arrested, tortured and imprisoned. This is remarkable when you consider that the Egyptian government has been unable to prove any serious act of violence orchestrated by the movement's leadership for more than 50 years.

While the majority in the Brotherhood find democracy compatible with its notion of slow Islamization, many Western analysts question the Brotherhood's adherence to democracy, wondering if it is merely tactical and opportunistic. Yet like other mass social movements, Egypt's Brotherhood is hardly a monolith. It has hardliners, reformers, and centrists. It also has a lot of older men getting older. This is relevant because the current revolution is dominated by the young, the so-called Facebook Generation.

Egypt is one of the world's more religious societies, but so is America. To be religious does not
make you an Islamist any more than it makes you a member of the radical Christian Right.
It is possible the Muslim Brotherhood will never gain more than 20% of Egyptian hearts and
minds and in the meantime, internal disputes complicate their agenda.

Critics point to a manifesto for political reform published by the Brotherhood in 2007, which called for a council of religious scholars to be established to approve all laws passed by Egypt's civilian institutions. Moderates within the Brotherhood openly disagreed with the document, asserting that they wanted only an Islamic frame of reference for legislation.

It is impossible to predict what the Brotherhood is planning. Nevertheless, it is arguable that any regime change in Egypt must include them. "Without the Muslim Brotherhood, there's no legitimacy in whatever happens in Egypt anymore," says Ed Husain, former jihadist and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Issam al-Aryan, a senior member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau told the BBC that the movement would not put forward its own candidate in any forthcoming presidential election. Instead it wants to nominate a consensus candidate. "We want a civil state, based on Islamic principles. A democratic state with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom and an independent and fair judiciary."

The US doesn't have to endorse the Brotherhood but it would be wise to stop demonizing it.