Even before Hosni Mubarak gave in to the throngs in Tahrir Square and stepped down as Egypt's president on Feb. 11, officials in Western capitals were debating what role the Muslim Brotherhood would play in a new Egypt and a changing Middle East. Yet much of what we know—or think we know—about the group's ambitions, beliefs and history is clouded by misperceptions.
1. The Muslim Brotherhood is a global organization.
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood saw its ideas quickly spread throughout the Arab world and beyond. Today, groups in more than 80 countries trace their ideologies to the Brotherhood, but these entities do not form a cohesive unit. Globally, the Brotherhood is more a school of thought than an official organization of card-carrying members.
Attempts to create a more formal global structure have failed, and the movement instead has taken on various forms. Where it is tolerated, as in Jordan, it functions as a political party; where persecuted, as in Syria, it survives underground; and in the Palestinian territories, it took a peculiar turn and became Hamas.
Though they interact through a network of personal, financial and ideological ties, Brotherhood entities operate independently, and each pursues its goals as it deems appropriate. What binds them is a deep belief in Islam as a way of life that, in the long term, they hope to turn into a political system, using different methods in different places.
2. The Brotherhood will dominate the new Egypt.
With most political forces in Egypt today discredited or disorganized, many assume that the Brotherhood's well-oiled political machine will play a major role in the country's future.
This is not far-fetched, yet there are reasons to believe that the group will hardly dominate post-Mubarak Egypt. When I interviewed members of the Brotherhood's Shura Council in 2009, they estimated that about 60 percent of Egyptians supported the group—seeing it as the only viable opposition to Mubarak—but that only 20 percent or so would support it in a hypothetical free election. And even that might have been optimistic: A poll of Egyptians by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy after Mubarak's fall found that only 15 percent of respondents approved of the Brotherhood, while the group's leaders received barely 1 percent in a presidential straw vote.
Over the past decade, aging hard-liners and a second generation of 50-somethings have wrestled for leadership of the Brotherhood. Then there are the younger cadres, which took part in the protest movement against Mubarak and deplored their leaders' late participation in it. How these divisions develop will determine the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian politics.
3. The Brotherhood seeks to impose a draconian version of sharia law.
All Brotherhood factions will now push to increase the influence of sharia—Islamic law—in Egypt. However, the generational battle will determine what vision of sharia they will pursue.
The old guard's motto is still "the Koran is our constitution." The second generation speaks of human rights and compares itself to Europe's Christian Democrats—embracing democracy but keeping a religious identity. The third generation, especially in urban areas, seems to endorse this approach, even if skeptics contend that younger militants are simply offering a moderate facade to the West.
So far, the old guard is prevailing. The Brotherhood's first major political platform, released in 2007, paid lip service to democracy and stated that women and non-Muslims could not occupy top government posts, and gave a body of unelected sharia experts veto power over new laws. How long this old guard remains in control will shape the group's positions on sharia's most debated aspects, from women's rights to religious freedoms.
4. The Muslim Brotherhood has close ties to al-Qaeda.
Historically, yes. But recently, those ties have frayed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Brotherhood was brutally repressed by the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Understanding that violence against Nasser was a losing proposition, most of the group opted for nonviolent opposition, seeking to Islamize society through grass-roots education and mainstream politics.
But a smaller wing, led by theologian Sayyid Qutb, opted for violence. This faction argued that Islamization from below was too slow and would be impeded by local and foreign powers. For generations, Qutb's idea of religiously justified violence has inspired jihadists worldwide. Several al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, were influenced by the Brotherhood early in life, only to grow disillusioned with the organization later on.
While the Brotherhood has not completely rejected violence—supporting its use in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and other places where it believes Muslims are under attack—the two groups have recently clashed over tactics and theology. Al-Qaeda's No. 2, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, even wrote a book attacking the group for replacing bullets with ballots.
5. Washington can't work with the Brotherhood.
U.S. and Brotherhood officials have taken tough public stances against each other recently. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the Brotherhood a "nefarious element" in Egyptian politics, while Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badi said America is "heading toward its demise."
But posturing aside, there may be room for engagement with the Brotherhood's more moderate players. It has happened before: Since early in the Eisenhower administration, parts of the U.S. government have reached out to the group, seeing its religious message as a potential bulwark against communism. It wasn't a true partnership, but during the Cold War, Washington and the Brothers occasionally put distrust aside to establish limited cooperation.
The White House took criticism last month when it said it would be open to a role for the Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, if it rejected violence and accepted democratic goals. But even after Sept. 11, 2001, some elements within the CIA and the State Department toyed with the idea of working with the Brotherhood against al-Qaeda, convinced that only radicals could defeat other radicals.
Even if Washington and the Brotherhood find ways to live with each other, big foreign-policy breakthroughs are unlikely. Wielding more power in Egypt could make the Brotherhood more pragmatic, but opposition to U.S. policy in the region is the cornerstone of its agenda—and that probably won't change.
Lorenzo Vidino, a visiting fellow at the Rand Corporation, is the author of "The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West."
This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on March 6, 2011. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.