As Egypt moves from the euphoria of revolution to the less heady questions of timetables, candidates, and elections, the Arab world’s oldest and dominant Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, is again stepping into the Egyptian political and global media limelight. The country’s military rulers have just announced that voting for the People’s Assembly will begin on November 28 of this year, marking the first parliamentary elections since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Amid fears that the vote would divide Islamist parties and youth secular groups, however, the Muslim Brotherhood appears confident in its role in the transition process from military to civilian rule. Although attention has centered predominantly on the group’s future policy directions, the Brotherhood’s key significance lies with its historical role in shaping the very institutions that will determine the power of Egypt’s democracy.

As the best organized force among Egypt’s political actors, the Muslim Brotherhood, with its widespread and deeply entrenched grassroots network, is eager to play its part in Egypt’s post-revolutionary regime. Western commentators are quick to  raise apprehensions about the Brotherhood’s potential for radical Islamist, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli policies, potentially akin to post-revolutionary Iran. However, the Brotherhood’s composition, structure, guiding ideology, and political history discount such fears.

The Brotherhood has revoked violence as a legitimate strategy decades ago under leaders such as Hassan al-Hudaybi and Umar al-Tilmisani, and radical groups such as Al Qaeda have long scoffed at the Brotherhood’s involvement in politics. Moreover, the Brotherhood recruits members from lay professionals instead of clerics, and its guiding ideology affirms the belief that an ideal politics will follow, not lead, a society polished by Muslim values, belying the idea of a government that will strong-arm its people toward more overt expressions of faith. Under the Brotherhood, shari’a law may have greater influence in legislation , but as a complex organization deeply imbedded with its grassroots and parliamentary procedure, this influence will do more to reflect than force popular beliefs. Finally, while the Brotherhood’s views on Israel are negative, this is hardly the mark of an outlier in the region.

More importantly, whether publicly supported or not, personal or organizational attitudes are not the only factor that will influence the Brotherhood’s Peace and Justice Party when in government. The Brotherhood’s participation in the People’s Assembly reveal a shift over the decades from religion and morals to practical issues of legal and political reform, socioeconomic policies, and human rights. It will likely continue to act in a politically pragmatic manner, and any new government will be aware of the significant economic and bureaucratic issues it must prioritize before catalyzing geopolitical challenges.

In sum, the Brotherhood’s political history foretells a group that will govern in the pragmatic, wary way it has thus far guided itself. Moreover, the dominance of inquiries regarding the Brotherhood’s likely actions in government unfortunately overshadows the immediately relevant question of where, in the coming months, it will stand. The stability and depth of the transition will largely depend on both the youth and the liberals, who want larger social and political change, and the military, which has a status quo bias as it currently benefits from involvement in many of Egypt’s key industries. Such a spectrum includes elections as well as a more fundamental shift in Egypt’s power structure that encompasses trials of former regime members, reforms targeted at correcting institutional corruption, and potential retreat of the military’s influence in the economy. The Brotherhood has the organizational incentive to favor stability and avoid risky behavior that could jeopardize its political lead or further taint its international reputation. However, as Egyptian youth continue to mobilize, the Brotherhood faces the challenge of holding its own complex internal currents together while preserving legitimacy in the face of the public.

Therefore, its political stance will not only influence how far the transition process will proceed, but also reflect whether the Brotherhood can move beyond its savvy for self-preservation to lead, instead of simply ride, the wave of democratic change.

Thus far, those internal dynamics seem not so much flexible as divisive. During the May 27th protests in Tahrir Square over trials of old members of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood chose not to join in, remaining skeptical of the movement. However, hundreds of its youth decided to participate anyway. The Muslim Brotherhood youth have again stood in solidarity with the youth movements in response to the military’s June communiqué  (which declared that April 6 is receiving foreign funds and accused it and Kifaya, youth movements heavily involved in the protests early this year, of attempting to divide the army and the people), declaring on their Facebook page that it is inappropriate to question the movements’ intentions. The Brotherhood is not beyond casting off its own, as evidenced by the expulsions of several of its youth leaders due to their support for former Brotherhood member and current presidential candidate Abdel Aboul-Fotouh, their decision to form the Egyptian Current party, and even deeper questions regarding disagreement with the organization’s policy.   

Yet, even if the Brotherhood is unable to move with the youth for deeper political change, and Egypt’s first democratic years see more energy expended in managing instability than significant institutional reform, the Brotherhood’s lackluster leadership during the transition process can have unintended, long-term boons for democracy.

Members of the Brotherhood will leave the organization when they feel that it is no longer the most effective conduit for change amid this window of opportunity. Already, various breakaway parties have emerged, such as the Hezb al-Wassat or Center Party, which was blocked from party status in 2000 but has now re-emerged, and Al Nahda, the Renaissance. Such groups not only diversify the political spectrum, but also transport the Brotherhood’s significant organizational knowledge through former members to the work of building effective parties, another significant challenge for the establishment of a vibrant democracy.

Egypt’s democratic transition continues to face obstacles at this critical juncture of institutional destruction and creation. Unfortunately, it seems  so far that the Muslim Brotherhood has focused more on preparing itself for the coming political competition than taking a significant role in managing the transition process. Continuing protests and incipient signs of irritation between the youth and the military reflect the lack of effective mediation among actors in this drama. While scholars can debate the causes of the Brotherhood’s modest presence, it brings to light the unfortunate fact that our debate has, by its focus on what the Brotherhood may do once in power, failed to judge it as a forceful and legitimate player in the establishment of democracy, and has subsequently also alleviated it of the responsibilities of this role.