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America's new to-do list starts with Muslim Brotherhood

A wounded anti-government protester sounds out the Muslim call to prayer from a rooftop on the edge of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Feb. 4, 2011.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images/Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The "morning after" has yet to take shape in Egypt. But whatever it looks like, it will be the dawn of a new life for the granddaddy of political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The new Egyptian Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, has publicly invited the organization to participate in talks about election reform, a move that marks a new chapter in the 83-year history of the Brotherhood, and the Egyptian regime's formal recognition of the Islamists as political players is echoing across the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt by a schoolteacher who envisioned an Islamic state free of what he saw as dangerous secular and foreign influence.

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Its tactics and language have shifted over the years, but the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt insists that it does not want to force an Islamic government and Islamic law on any country. Its leaders say they take a long view and believe that Muslim societies, naturally religious, will demand a religious state if given a free choice.

But the Brotherhood, now a multinational organization, is hardly monolithic and its trajectory in different countries shows how difficult it is to predict what its brand of political Islam in Egypt might turn out to be.

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Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot that controls Gaza, has fought pitched battles with the secular Palestinian Authority that runs the West Bank. The ruling AK Party in Turkey, which grew out of the Brotherhood movement there, maintains close military ties with Israel.

In other countries in the Arab world, the Brotherhood and its offshoots have sunk roots that give them a deep influence - even as secular leaders alternately suppressed, tolerated and tried to co-opt them. In Egypt and Jordan, for example, they have hospitals and clinics, offer scholarships for students, and control professional associations for doctors and lawyers. When a powerful earthquake rocked Cairo in 1992, the organization stepped in faster than the government to provide food, temporary shelter and medical care to people who lost their homes.

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front has participated in some elections and boycotted others, most recently last November. In 1989, it won enough seats to join a coalition government. Its publishing house for years produced the textbooks used in Jordan's public schools.

Their ability to run parallel governments is a reflection, and a predictor, of their political sway and potential. Given a chance, they might win in fair elections by default because the countries where they operate have suppressed all alternative political forces.

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"These societies are deeply religious," said Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "They'd do very well, but that's also because there are no other parties other than the ruling party in all these cases. They've used their social activities, their charitable activities, to build a political movement, and no one else has done that."

That potential, and the violence that some Brotherhood groups have used, have all but eliminated the movement in other countries.

The Islamic Salvation Front, with its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, came close to winning parliamentary elections in Algeria in 1992 before the military stepped in to cancel the ballot and imprison the Front leaders.

Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad faced down a violent challenge from the Brotherhood by hunting its members down in the town of Hama, bombarding the city and killing an estimated 10,000 people in the process.

In the past week, Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Egypt have sent mixed messages.

In an interview on the Iranian TV station Alalam, Mohammed Ghanem said President Hosni Mubarak "is protected by the Zionists" and he called on Egyptians to block the Suez Canal so prevent oil shipments to Israel.

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In a separate interview with the BBC, another spokesman, Kamal el-Helbawy, said the Muslim Brotherhood would not cancel Egypt's peace treaty with Israel if it comes to power but would reconsider whether it was valid because of the "injustices" in Israel's treatment of Palestinians. As for Egyptians, he said, the Brotherhood would offer "freedom of belief, freedom of expression, everything."

Other commentators have held up Turkey as an example of Islamists working within a democratic system and pragmatically setting aside any ideological mission to create an Islamic state. The comparison, though, is not valid, according to Andrew Mango, an author and historian of Turkey.

The AK Party grew out of an Islamist political movement that had won elections in Turkish cities and served in Parliament for a decade. "They have considerable experience of government by now, knowledge of how far they can go and long experience of interacting with Europe," Mr. Mango said. "Egypt could try to emulate Turkey, but it's a long process."

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also appears hesitant about whether it is ready to jump into the political fray. Mohammed al-Beltagi, the group's overall leader, has said it has no plans to present a presidential candidate or be part of any coalition government in the future.

But in its years in the political wilderness, the Brotherhood has become a diverse movement with competing trends and personalities.

"They said 'no' to democracy, then they changed. They said 'no' to women and then they changed," Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-based Muslim scholar, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television.

"Islamism," added Mr. Ramadan, a grandson of the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna, "is a multifaceted reality."

Susan Sachs is a Kabul-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail and the former Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times.

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Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

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