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‘We will prevail,’ reads the upheld fist of a protester demanding the resignation of the president of Yemen in 2011, along with the colours Lybia, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt.

Hani Mohammed/The Associated Press

Tahrir Square is packed with people hugging each other, waving Egyptian flags, weeping in joy at their success. Their pharoah has fallen, and they can claim credit. This scene is from two years ago, at the start of the Arab uprisings – a string of mass protests that shook the region and, in some cases, led to new governments in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen as well as Egypt.

But this week, Cairo was once again was awash in flags and beatific masses. And it's as if the revolution is running in reverse: The crowd has been celebrating the ouster of the new leadership they once cheered. Instead of fighting supporters of Hosni Mubarak, angry mobs have stormed and burned the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters. Another crowd broke into their more secretive offices, located in a nondescript building on an island in the Nile, and now shows scars of forcible entry and a spot where a proud party plaque has been ripped off a door.

"They're gone," the building's security guard told me, referring to Brotherhood members who had fled just ahead of the mob. "They won't be back."

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Don't be so sure. All this is part of a larger see-saw battle between the forces of political Islam on the one hand and the military forces of autocratic regimes on the other – a battle that has held this country, and much of the region, in its grip for nearly a century.

Egypt is not only the most populous and powerful country in the Middle East, it is a bellwether for the state of the Islamic politics. The Muslim Brotherhood formed here in 1928 and has since influenced countless groups in their struggles against colonialism, European influence and their own countries' autocratic regimes.

Look behind the Iranian revolution of 1979, for example, and you find the writings of Sayid Qutb, a leading figure in the Brotherhood. See the movement's sway in the Palestinian intifada of the 1980s, in Algeria of the early 1990s, even in Turkey's shift to the Justice and Development Party a decade ago.

Now, however, the ousting of this group raises questions about whether political Islam can be trusted to remain democratic. And how Egypt responds to the current backlash will set the agenda across the Middle East for a generation to come.

The appeal of political Islam is simple: Movements inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood – whether in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia or Palestine – offer solace and support to those who see themselves as victimized by colonial or European influence, or occupying powers. They speak to people who feel unempowered, even unwelcome, in their own countries.

In December of 1991, amid Algeria's first free and open election, I met Sebti, a 33-year-old engineer who epitomized this trend.

Sebti joined me for breakfast one day at Algiers' most elegant hotel. In his old buttonless overcoat, which he refused to remove, no doubt because of his shabby sweater underneath, he felt distinctly out of place. He was a professional but felt uncomfortable in a hotel that had been the built for the French and used by the European Allies in the Second World War.

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He had been among the thousands of people who had kneeled in the streets of Algiers outside mosques that were too crowded to hold everyone for Friday prayers. He had learned English at the British Council, but for all his adult years, Sebti had struggled to gain an education and international awareness.

He joined the the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a group that took its cue from the Brotherhood's success – and the kind of movement that had been banned by corrupt Algerian regimes since shortly after the country fought a bloody war to oust the French in the early 1960s – because it offered people like him a real chance at success.

The FIS, allowed to run by an enlightened president, Chadli Bendjedid, campaigned on a message of honesty, the free market and respect for women. The party triumphed in the first round of parliamentary elections, and stood poised to win the second round of voting to form a government.

Identifying and supporting professionals is a hallmark of Brotherhood movements not only in Algeria but across the region. Often, the movement has fielded candidates for leadership from professional associations.

In Gaza, in the early 1990s, for example, I met more people like Sebti – mostly aspiring doctors, pharmacists and lawyers – who had joined the relatively new Hamas movement, an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood that had been active in the territory since well before Israel occupied it in 1967.

Many of these Gazans had turned to the mosques in the wake of the war that year (mosques tripled in number in the next decade) seeking some comfort from the shame of defeat and occupation. And many, especially in the Palestinian refugee camps, turned to the Brotherhood too.

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The Brotherhood, with Israeli support, of all things, founded a university in Gaza, a hospital and several other health centres and schools. (Israel saw these conservative religious followers as much less threatening than the Palestine Liberation Organization and its various military groups.) All of which helped to cement the Palestinian community and its religious bonds.

Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official who was born in the Rafah refugee camp on the Egyptian border, described his joy in discovering the Brotherhood in a Globe and Mail documentary. His life in the camp had been pretty rough, and the movement encouraged him to study.

In 1987, Palestinian youths spontaneously staged relatively peaceful marches against Israeli military forces, and senior members of the Brotherhood formed Hamas as a means to manage the growing uprising.

Initially armed with nothing but rocks, waves of young people faced Israeli soldiers and tanks. About 100 were killed in the first 100 days, but they achieved more by their passive resistance than by all the airplane hijackings and terrorist attacks carried out by other Palestinian groups.

The campaign stunned Israelis, who couldn't believe the willingness of the youths to face down the tanks. (It was a lesson that was not lost on Hamas, which recognized that sensitivity could be a weakness to be exploited.)

The intifada would lead to the Oslo peace process, an outrage as far as Hamas was concerned because it represented a compromise with the Israeli occupiers who, they noted, still held Jerusalem and a lot of other Islamic territory. Nevertheless, on Sept. 13, 1993, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House and PLO supporters celebrated in the streets in Gaza.

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The advice given by the Hamas preachers that day to their downcast congregations was memorable. They told them to stay calm; that time was on their side.

Next door in Egypt, the Brotherhood was already familiar with long timelines. Their struggle had already been under way for decades – and it would be decades more before they came to power.

"Our approach is to be risk averse," a member of the Muslim Brotherhood said this week in Cairo as the movement faced one of its greatest challenges. There is little to be gained by violent defeat, he added. "We must build institutions, build public trust and bide our time."

Not surprisingly, many in the Arab world have grown impatient with this long-term approach to winning power. Mass communications show off how well others live, and the desire for immediate change is strong.

Some have found a faster path in Sayid Qutb's more radical call to form a vanguard and fight the oppressors, a call answered by Islamic jihad. Born out of the Brotherhood in the late 1970s, the group's first move was action, not waiting, with the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The group did make its mark, but the result was not power or greater freedom. Instead, the assassination led to the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak and repeated crackdowns on all Islamist groups.

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The crackdowns were fierce. By the early 1990s, another group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri – a disciple of Sayid Qutb and now a leader of al-Qaeda – had become prominent. The group was called Gamaa Islamiya, and their approach was to take the fight to the enemy. They barricaded themselves inside their mosque in the Upper Egypt city of Assiut in 1993.

I sat with them in that mosque, and listened to the sermon of a Gamaa preacher announcing that president Hosni Mubarak would meet the same fate as Mr. Sadat. On leaving the mosque, I was arrested for being inside a closed military zone, and taken out of the city. Two days later, the army closed in on the mosque and killed the young leaders.

In that case, violence was met with violence. In others, violence has been the response to attempts at peaceful, democratic change.

In Algeria, the FIS, the overwhelming victor in the first round of the 1991 parliamentary election, never got to run in a second round. The military dismissed the president and cancelled the election entirely. The move was supported by France, the United States and Canada, among others. The result: a civil war, quickly joined by much more extreme Islamic militants, which left more than 100,000 people dead.

In Turkey, a series of attempts by moderate Islamic-oriented parties to join or form a government have been struck down by the judiciary, backed by the country's military. Only in 2002 did Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-oriented AK Party succeed in forming a government. The country's first practising Muslim President, Abdullah Gul, was not elected until 2007.

In Palestine, Hamas won the territories' first free and open legislative election in 2006. But Israel, the occupying power, refused to deal with it, as did the U.S. and Canada. The Palestinian Authority president suspended the legislature.

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All of this makes it increasingly difficult for moderates to advise political Islamic groups to trust in democracy.

Even when democracy has brought political Islam to power, as the results of the past two decades have shown, it can be a pernicious victory.

In Turkey, it took three attempts before an Islamic-oriented government would be allowed to govern.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won parliamentary and presidential elections with about 50 per cent voter support – but has still been ousted by the military responding to an angry populace.

Brotherhood members here in Egypt say it's no coincidence that these protests are taking place at the same time as unrest has rocked the Islamic government in Tunisia and the Erdogan government in Turkey. They think Saudi Arabia is backing those behind the unrest, that the country wants to contain the Brotherhood's influence.

But liberal critics of political Islam fear that Islamic-oriented governments will advance a religious agenda at the expense of other issues, such as economic development, and that they will find every opportunity to put an end to the democracy that got them elected.

These critics question whether observant Muslims can ever be democrats. At its root, doesn't Islamic law ultimately trump any man-made law?

The better question might be whether Western liberals are prepared to accept the outcome of democracy in Arab society.

Meanwhile, many are wondering whether the backlash against Egypt's Islamic government will spur an abandonment of democracy altogether, or more violence.

Certainly, the Muslim Brotherhood that has been described as the biggest winner of the Arab Spring is no longer enjoying such a reputation.

That will make things more difficult in Palestine, where Hamas has been comforted by an affiliated organization running the country next door, which has allowed for freer travel in and out of the constricted Gaza Strip. Qatar, a great supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, will likewise feel bruised by recent developments.

Turkey, which remains the only country in the region where political Islam has a secure foothold over previously autocratic administrations, must be worried by what is essentially a military coup in a friendly country. (Mr. Erdogan's government went so far as issuing a statement this week denouncing the ouster of Mohammed Morsi as an illegal act.)

And who gains from all this?

In Egypt, despite the fiery rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, and the large numbers of Morsi supporters who took to the streets on Friday, it appears that the military will rule for some time to come.

Its day-long show of air power – streaking jet fighters, many in formation, and big lumbering helicopters – succeeded in conveying to the people that there was little point in learning the name of the constitutional judge who is, officially, Egypt's interim President. The real power rests with the generals.

It probably won't be long before Egypt's liberals and even the general public come back to support the currently deposed Muslim Brothers.

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