Operating within an authoritarian regime has moderated the group, but that could reverse
At this stage in the revolution unfolding in Cairo's Tahrir Square and beyond, it is hard to imagine how Mubarak's regime can last much longer. If Egypt establishes a post-Mubarak democracy, how big of a role can we expect the Muslim Brotherhood to play? The answer may have less to do with the group's Islamist ideology than its, and Egypt's, political organization.
Politics is about organization. Islamists are such a critical force not because they represent a majority; on the contrary, they are influential because they represent an organized plurality, one that faces an organized state and a disorganized civil society (labor, women's groups, students, businessmen). Opposition to autocracy may be a strong mobilizing force in ousting a regime, but it is not sufficient to transform today's diverse masses of protesters into a political force with the organization and staying power to compete politically with Islamists.
In the old days -- that is, about a week ago -- the organizational weakness of non-Islamist forces in most Arab states largely defined opposition as a face-off between the state and Islamists, presenting non-Islamists with a difficult choice: Mubarak or the Brotherhood. That particular choice may now have collapsed. But unless the coming weeks and months see a political reform process that provides real incentives for a plurality of non-Islamist voices to organize and secure constituencies, Islamists may become hegemonic.
I am not suggesting that Islamists are, by their very nature, dangerous, evil or radical. They contain within their folds a diverse set of voices. But in a context of mass insurrection, a collapsing state, and other organized alternatives not as yet on the field of political struggle, Islamist leaders may be tempted to outbid one other, or rival elites, to establish their populist credentials, thus endowing their movement with a more radical face. Of course, it's also possible that this "outbidding" could go in the other direction -- toward the larger and more moderate political center. Such a possibility will hinge, in part, on the nature of the electoral system, as well as on the readiness of non-Islamist parties to work together to mobilize support and establish a clear, credible message.
The Muslim Brethren have a proven capacity to mobilize quickly. And, in contrast to the leaders of Tunisia's An-Nahda Party, the Brethren's leaders have demonstrated a thin commitment to the principle of pluralism.
Several scholars have highlighted this dynamic. Dina Shehata's analysis suggests that the Brethren have been aggressively opportunistic: they have let secularists lead in challenging the regime, only to come in later having hedged their bets. When they do work with secular forces, they evince ideological flexibility when they are weak, and growing intolerance as their leverage grows within the opposition.
Similarly, Shadi Hamid argued that the Brethren's tendency to adopt more radical positions increases when they leave the circle of elite politics and begin seeking mass support, particularly among their socially conservative base. Participation absent credible organized competition from non-Islamist forces does not appear to elicit moderation from the Brethren -- quite the reverse.
Everyone who wants to see a transition from autocracy to something close to pluralist democracy -- including liberal Islamists -- must consider the most effective steps for avoiding this radicalizing dynamic. This will require sustained efforts to forge a common set of rules, a political pact to which all groups will pledge commitment.
Such an agreement would also require remarkable political leadership. Whether Mohammed ElBaradei, or someone else, could do it is an open question.
Finally, opposition groups coming together to create a political pact secured by credible leaders who can bridge the ideological divide is necessary, but it can only be the first step in a vitally needed reorganization of Egypt's political field, one that will then harness the energy of new social forces. We may be in a post-Islamist moment, but we are not in a post-Islamist transition -- not yet anyway.
This is a time of tremendous opportunity for Egypt and for the region. But this moment could also be a prelude to a new phase of internal conflict whose results are hard to predict. Let us hope that Egypt's democrats, after the exhilaration of these remarkable days, do not wake up with a terrible headache.
Photo: Members of the Muslim Brotherhood hold a press conference in November. Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty