Zaid Hassan argues in The Strategic Caution of the Muslim BrotherhoodReligion Dispatches 02/10/2011 that "to dismiss the Brotherhood as incompetent or irrelevant ignore both the historical and current reality of the Brotherhood as virtuoso political actors and survivors." To treat the Brothers - the Ikhwan, in the Anglicized version of its Arabic name - as the equivalent of "Al Qa'ida" is foolish. Even though Sayyid Qutb, an Ikhwan leader during his lifetime, is considered the main spiritual godfather of the kind of violent, extreme Salafi thinking which Osama bin Laden adopted, the Ikhwan has gone a very different way. (I guess "godfather" is kind of an awkward term to use in an Islamic context.)
Hassan quotes Abdelwahab El-Affendi describing the Ikhwan's approach as "tactical carefulness and strategic modesty." Any supporter of secular democracy will have concerns about Ikhwan's longer-term goals in terms of imposing their conservative religious views on others through state power. But it's important to try to be genuinely realistic in assessing what the Ikhwan actually is without swallowing propaganda fear-mongering from Christianists like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh.
Robert Dreyfuss provides more background on Ikhwan in What Is the Muslim Brotherhood, and Will It Take Over Egypt?Mother Jones 02/11/2011. His book Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (2005) deals extensively with the Ikhwan. Dreyfuss' book puts the development of political Islam as we know it today into the anti-Communist context of the Cold War, when the United States and Israel viewed Islamist groups and movements as useful and desirable competition to left-leaning, pro-Soviet parties and governments.
Recent superficial discussions of Egyptian politics on American TV might lead one to believe that the Egyptian regime was a bitter opponent of Ikhwan and Islamism. Which is a half-truth. Mubarak hated and feared the Muslim Brotherhood. But his predecessor Anwar Sadat promoted an Islamicizing trend as part of his approach to governance, as Dreyfuss describes in Mother Jones:
Guided by Kamal Adham, the head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service, Anwar Sadat — who'd been a member of the Brotherhood in the 1940s — reintroduced the Ikhwan to Egypt. At the time, Sadat had no political base, and he wanted to undermine the influence of the Nasserites and the communists. To that end, he calculatedly unleashed the power of right-wing political Islam. The Brotherhood's youth wing, often using physical force to intimidate its opponents, helped Sadat recapture ideological control of Egypt's universities. The Brotherhood also took the reins of Egypt's professional societies—doctors', engineers', and lawyers' groups. But because Sadat did not formally allow the Ikhwan to set up a political party, it fragmented into various components, some of which—inspired by Sayyid Qutb, a violent Salafi theoretician who was hanged by Nasser—turned to nihilist violence. One of these offshoots murdered Sadat in 1981, and then Vice President Mubarak took over. [my emphasis]
Karen Armstrong describes the Islamicizing trend under Sadat in her book, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World (1991).
In the past ten years this political force of this particular wing of the Brothers has been partially coopted by Mubarak’s government from two angles. First, Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and have been allowed to participate in the recent economic boom. The senior Brothers now own major cell phone companies and real estate developments, and have been absorbed into the NDP machine and upper-middle class establishment for years. Second, the government wholly appropriated the Brothers’ moral discourse. For the last ten or fifteen years Mubarak’s police-state has stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trash-recycling pig farmers, rent-control squatters, as well as Baha’i, Christian and Shi’i minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women, and excommunicated college professors. Thus, we can say that Egypt has already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state – Mubarak’s! Egyptians tried out that kind of regime. And they hated it. [my emphasis]
Dreyfuss offers this cautious observation about the state of Ikhwan today:
In 2007, the Brotherhood released a draft political program that included several very troubling proposals, including the idea that Egypt's government be overseen by an unelected council of Islamic scholars who would measure the country's laws against the Koran and sharia to make sure governance would "conform to Islamic law." Since then, various Muslim Brotherhood officials have also made conflicting statements about anything from the role of women to the treatment of non-Muslim minorities.
In the end, there's no getting around the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is, if not an anachronism, a profoundly reactionary force. Its views on marriage, the family, homosexuality, and the like are distasteful to most Western minds and many Egyptian ones. And it harbors a strong current of overt anti-Semitism, along with a penchant for conspiracy theories. Despite Egypt's drift toward a more conservative Islamic outlook since the 1970s—which paralleled similar trends across the Muslim world—the Egyptian people, especially the middle class, may in the end not be receptive to the Brotherhood's message.
Juan Cole also provides an update on the Ikhwan in Fear Not the Muslim Brotherhood BoogeymanTruthdig 02/15/2011. He reminds us that some American demagogues are perfectly happy to flat-out lie about the group:
Someone named Andy McCarthy, identified as a "former federal prosecutor," has been everywhere in the media making the most grossly inaccurate claims about the Muslim Brotherhood and demonstrating a profundity of ignorance about Egypt unmatched since Pope Innocent III launched the disastrous Fifth Crusade in 1213. McCarthy alleged that the Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, that Ayman al-Zawahri of al-Qaida is in this group, and that the fundamentalist party Hamas in the Gaza Strip is under the control of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Everything he said to millions of Americans was a laughable falsehood.
He also reinforces the role that Islamist politics played in the ruling style of Anwar Sadat:
In the 1970s, Sadat rehabilitated the Brotherhood and stipulated that if it would eschew violence and become a civil society association, the government would let its members out of jail and allow them relative freedom. It was this bargain, to which the Brotherhood has faithfully adhered, that drove radicals such as al-Zawahri, now al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, to break with the Brotherhood and to denounce it virulently. Sadat was not assassinated by the Brotherhood, contrary to what was alleged to the great Mideast expert Sean Hannity by the great Mideast expert McCarthy. The president was felled by militants who rejected both him and his ally, the Muslim Brotherhood.
He also reminds us that while it's ridiculous to imagine the Ikhwan as some super-menace, foreign policy makers need to be realistic in thinking about what it is:
The Muslim Brotherhood is a fundamentalist organization. It is relatively hostile to women's rights, and its vision of moving Egypt even further from civil, secular law to a conservative and literalist interpretation of medieval Muslim traditions is reactionary. Its literature is tainted with the worst sort of anti-Semitism. But decades of repression have not destroyed the movement, and there is no reason to believe that more repression would be more effective now.
There is another, proven, way to deal with this problem. The political success stories of the past decade in the Muslim world with regard to democratization are Turkey and Indonesia. In both countries the fundamentalist religious tendency has been liberalized and domesticated by its participation in the parliamentary process. Mubarak’s regime did not work. Democracy in Turkey and Indonesia has. Let us go with a winner for once. [my emphasis]