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Who's afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood? (NASSER NURI/Reuters)
Who's afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood? (NASSER NURI/Reuters)

Doug Saunders

Who's afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood? Add to ...

It was not until the fourth day of Egypt's mass protests, long after the then-peaceful crowds had swelled into the hundreds of thousands, that the Brothers marched into Cairo's Tahrir Square. They kept to themselves, taking over an otherwise empty corner. You could distinguish them, those in the square told me, by their propensity toward beards and head scarves, and by their chants of " Allahu Akbar."

Here was the physical manifestation of the threat we'd been warned about for decades by defenders of Arab authoritarianism, the mother of all Islamic fundamentalist parties literally "stepping in to fill the vacuum" as a Western-supported dictatorship crumbled.

The Muslim Brotherhood, surprisingly sluggish and inarticulate, had finally moved, and here they were. Not exactly a formidable bunch, but soon that vacuum in the pavement would become a vacuum in the presidential palace, wouldn't it?

Or so we were told. The threat of the long-outlawed Brotherhood, the great-grandfather of every jihadist and Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East, is the key reason why the United States and most European countries have continued to support Hosni Mubarak and his kind for decades. It's the reason, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman, why Canada rather shockingly continued to support Mr. Mubarak this week. Mr. Mubarak himself continues to warn that, after his demise, a deluge of Islamist "chaos" will follow, somehow worse than the chaos he'd unleashed.

What happens when Islamist parties gain power? First, we should ask what happens when they're explicitly denied power. And we know that outcome. When these popular movements are repressed, as Egypt has done brutally for six decades, the frustrated adherents have switched to non-political, violent means: All jihadist movements, including al-Qaeda, were born as responses to this frustration. You can draw a direct line between the crushing of the Brotherhood and the attacks of 9/11.

When these parties are allowed a role in democratic government, there's a pattern. Remember, however alarming their ideas about women and Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood and its neighbouring parties represent the people who explicitly rejected the violent option (and were shunned and sometimes attacked for this by the jihadists) because they wanted a place in a legitimate government. There's zero chance of Egypt's uprising turning into the 1979 Iranian revolution or the terrorist violence of Hamas; there are no parties, and no Egyptian constituency of any size, seeking a theocracy.

"These parties definitely reject the Iranian model," George Washington University political scientist Nathan Brown told me. "First, the Muslim Brotherhood is against a theocratic state or any role for clerics - it's led by a university professor of veterinary medicine. And second, they prefer to work within a pluralist system. Their slogan is, 'We seek participation, not domination.' The idea of creating an Islamic state does not seem to be anywhere near their agenda."

In Arab states such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, Islamist movements don't command the support to gain a majority and would have to share power with secular parties. Would the Muslim Brotherhood participate in a government that recognizes Israel and works with Western governments? Their leaders, and informed observers, say yes.

And the experience of fighting for an electoral share generally has a galvanizing effect on these parties. In Algeria, the Movement of Society for Peace, a Brotherhood offshoot, plays a leading role in condemning violence and helping denounce the region's jihadist groups. Leading Islamist parties in Morocco, Kuwait and Bahrain have abandoned sharia law as a principle and replaced it with a loose notion of "Islamic policy guidelines."

The most prominent example is Turkey, whose governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) began as an illegal Islamist movement but then, seeking electoral credibility, purged its sharia faction and won a majority. It has ruled for nearly a decade as an aggressively pro-European government that has co-operated with Israel and has done more for women's rights than its secularist predecessors. Its leaders tell me they are "Islamic in the same way that Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party is Christian."

It was heartening this week to hear some Muslim Brotherhood grandees citing the AKP as their role model. They may represent religious and social views that are abhorrent. But those views are far more dangerous if they're kept outside and left to fester in the darkness.

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