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WASHINGTON — After maintaining a low profile in protests led largely by secular young Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition force, appeared to be taking a more assertive role Thursday, issuing a statement asking for President Hosni Mubarak to step aside for a transitional government.

“We demand that this regime is overthrown, and we demand the formation of a national unity government for all the factions,” the Brotherhood said in a statement broadcast by Al-Jazeera.

The Obama administration has spoken cautiously about the future role of the Brotherhood, which has long been banned by Mubarak’s government, saying only that all parties must renounce violence and accept democracy. But one of the few near-certainties of a post-Mubarak Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as a powerful political force.

The unanswered question, according to experts on the region, is whether that will prove a manageable challenge for the United States and Israel or a catastrophe for U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is the world’s oldest and largest Islamist movement, with affiliates in most Muslim countries and adherents in Europe and the United States.

Its size and diversity, and the legal ban that has kept it from genuine political power in Egypt for decades, make it hard to characterize simply. As the Roman Catholic Church includes both those who practice leftist liberation theology and conservative anti-abortion advocates, so the Brotherhood includes both practical reformers and firebrand ideologues.

Which of those tendencies might rise to dominance in a new Egypt is under intense discussion inside the Obama administration, where officials say they may be willing to consult with the Brotherhood during a political transition.

Bruce Riedel, a veteran observer of the Muslim world at the Brookings Institution, said the United States has no choice but to accept the group’s role.

“If we really want democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a big part of the picture,” said Riedel, who was the Egypt desk officer at the Central Intelligence Agency when Mubarak came to power in 1981. “Rather than demonizing them, we ought to start engaging them now.”

U.S. politicians and pundits have used the Brotherhood as a sort of boogeyman, tagging it as a radical menace and the grandfather of al-Qaida. That lineage is accurate in a literal sense: Some al-Qaida leaders, notably the terror network’s Egyptian second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, have roots in the organization. But al-Qaida leaders despise the Brotherhood because it has renounced violence and chosen to compete in elections.

“The Brotherhood hates al-Qaida, and al-Qaida hates the Brotherhood,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.