Who will fill Egypt's power vacuum?

The Muslim Brotherhood is playing the long game.

Even as the mass demonstrations began in Tunisia, who would have thought that Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's regime would have collapsed so quickly?Who could have predicted that Egypt would soon witness such unprecedented popular protest? A barrier has fallen. Nothing will be the same again. It is quite likely that other countries will follow the lead of Egypt, given its central and symbolic significance. But what will be the role of the Islamists after the collapse of the dictatorships?

The Islamist presence has for decades justified the west's acceptance of the worst dictatorships in the Arab world. And it was these very regimes that demonised their Islamist opponents, particularly Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which historically represents that country's first well-organised mass movement with the political influence to match. For more than 60 years, the Brotherhood has been illegal but tolerated. It has demonstrated a powerful capacity to mobilise the people in each relatively democratic election - for trade unions, professional associations, municipalities, parliament and so on - where it has been a participant. So, are the Muslim Brothers the rising power in Egypt and, if so, what can we anticipate of such an organisation?

In the west, we have come to expect superficial analyses of political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. However, not only is Islamism a mosaic of widely differing trends and factions, but its many different facets have emerged over time and in response to historical shifts.

The Muslim Brothers began in the 1930s as a legalist, anti-colonialist and non-violent movement that claimed legitimacy for armed resistance in Palestine against Zionist expansionism during the period before the Second World War. The writings from between 1930 and 1945 of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, show that he opposed colonialism and strongly criticised the fascist governments in Germany and Italy. He rejected use of violence in Egypt, even though he considered it legitimate in Palestine, in resistance to the Zionist Stern and Irgun terror gangs. He believed that the British parliamentary model represented the kind closest to Islamic principles.

Al-Banna's objective was to found an "Islamic state" based on gradual reform, beginning with popular education and broad-based social programmes. He was assassinated in 1949 by the Egyptian government on the orders of the Brit­ish occupiers. Following Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolution in 1952, the movement was subjected to violent repression. Several distinct trends emerged. Radicalised by their experience of prison and torture, some of its members (who eventually left the organisation) concluded that the state had to be overthrown at all costs, even with violence. Others remained committed to the group's original position of gradual reform.

Many of its members were forced into exile: some in Saudi Arabia, where they were influenced by the Saudi literalist ideology; others in countries such as Turkey and Indonesia, Muslim-majority societies where a wide variety of communities coexist. Still others settled in the west, where they came into direct contact with the European tradition of democratic freedom.

Today's Muslim Brotherhood draws these diverse visions together. But the leadership of the movement - those who belong to the founding generation are now very old - no longer fully represents the aspirations of the younger members, who are much more open to the world, anxious to bring about internal reform and fascinated by the Turkish example. Behind the unified, hierarchical façade, contradictory influences are at work. No one can tell which way the movement will go.

The Turkish way

The Muslim Brotherhood is not leading the upsurge that is bringing down Hosni Mubarak: it is made up of young people, of women and men who have rejected dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamists in general, do not represent the majority. There can be no doubt that they hope to participate in the democratic transition when Mubarak departs, but no one can tell which faction will emerge in a dominant position. That makes it impossible to determine the movement's priorities. Between the literalists and the partisans of the Turkish way, anything can happen; the Brotherhood's political thinking has evolved considerably over the past 20 years.

Neither the United States nor Europe, not to mention Israel, will easily allow the Egyptian people to make their dream of democracy and freedom come true. The strategic and geopolitical considerations are such that the reform movement will be, and is already, closely monitored by US agencies in co-ordination with the Egyptian army, which has played for time and assumed the crucial role of mediator.

By deciding to line up behind Mohamed ElBaradei, who has emerged as the chief figure among the anti-Mubarak protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has signalled that now is not the time to expose itself by making political demands that might frighten the west, not to mention the Egyptian people. Caution is the watchword.

Respect for democratic principles demands that all forces which reject violence, which respect the rule of law (both before and after elections) participate fully in the political process. The Muslim Brotherhood must be a full partner in the process of change - and will be, if a minimally democratic state can be established in Egypt (though no one can define the intentions of foreign powers).

Neither repression nor torture has been able to eliminate the Brotherhood. The opposite is true. It is only democratic debate and the vigorous exchange of ideas that have had an impact on the development of the most problematic Islamist theses - from understanding of the sharia to respect for freedom and defence of equality. Only by exchanging ideas, and not by torture and dictatorship, can we find solutions that respect the people's will. Turkey's example should be an inspiration to observers.

The west continues to use "the Islamist threat" to justify its passivity and outright support for dictatorships. As resistance to Mubarak mounted, the Israeli government repeatedly called on Washington to back his junta against the popular will. Europe adopted a wait-and-see stance. Both attitudes are revealing: at the end of the day, lip-service to democratic prin­ciple carries little weight against the defence of political and economic interests. The United States prefers dictatorships that guarantee access to oil, and allow the Israelis to continue their slow colonisation, to credible representatives of the people who could not allow these things to continue.

Citing the voices of dangerous Islamists to justify not listening to the voices of the people is short-termist as well as illogical. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, the US has suffered heavy losses of credibility in the Middle East; the same is true for Europe. If the Americans and Europeans do not re-examine their policies, other powers in Asia and South America may begin to interfere soon with their elaborate structure of strategic alliances. As for Israel, which has now positioned itself as friend and protector of the Arab dictatorships, its government may well come to realise that those dictatorships are committed only to its policy of blind colonisation.

The regional impact of Mubarak stepping down will be huge, yet the exact consequences are unpredictable. After the revolutions in both Tunisian and Egyptian, the political message is clear: with non-violent mass protest, anything is possible and no autocratic government is safe and secure any longer.

Presidents and kings are feeling the pressure of this historical turning point. The unrest has reached Algeria, Yemen and Mauritania. One should also look at Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia: preventive reforms have been announced, as if there were a common feeling of fear and vulnerability. The rulers of all these countries know that if the Egyptian is collapsing, they run the risk of the same destiny. This state of instability is worrying and at the same time very promising. The Arab world is awakening with dignity and hope. The changes spell hope for true democrats, and trouble for those who would sacrifice democratic principle to their economic and geostrategic calculations. The liberation of Egypt seems to be just the start. Who will be next? If Jordan and Yemen follow, so will Saudi Arabia - the heart of the Muslim world - and Riyadh would be in a vulnerable position, with no choice but to evolve towards a more open political system.

Around the world, among Muslims, there is a critical mass that would support this move, the necessary revolution at the centre. In the end, only democracies that embrace all non-violent political forces can bring about peace in the Middle East, a peace that must also respect the dignity of the Palestinians.

Tariq Ramadan is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford. His latest book is "The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism" (Allen Lane, £14.99)

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