As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo's Tahrir Square during her first visit to post-revolutionary Egypt last month, I watched the news unfold from several miles away in the damp, sparse offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary leaders.
"Why doesn't she meet with us?" asked one Brotherhood member.
"We know why," said another.
And then they both fell silent.
I was in Cairo to understand that confusing silence. In days packed with meetings with leaders and grassroots activists of the Islamist group, Egypt's largest and best organized, I pressed them on their views toward hot-button issues like the role of sharia in government, human rights, Israel, and global terrorism. In meeting with Brotherhood members hailing from all walks of life, I found an array of diverse and even contradictory views that refuted the conception of the Muslim Brotherhood as a monolithic, anti-Western organization.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak's rule, it was easy to ignore the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned and occasionally tolerated. Nobody's ignoring the group anymore. The Brothers are on the march to power. Their sheer numbers, political legacy, and ability to mobilize crowds make them the single most potent political force in the country. The Washington foreign-policy establishment's reaction to the movement has ranged from caution to outright hostility. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, recently raised fears that the Brotherhood would "hijack" the revolution.
One does not have to look hard for evidence to support this view. In a wealthy Cairo suburb after evening prayers, I met with Mahdi Akef, the 82-year-old former head of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of its most popular leaders. Over mango juice, this elderly but vigorous man roared about the great future that he sees for Egypt. In one breath, he praised al Qaeda for "resisting American occupation," and in another called it an "American production."
"Mr. Akef has spent more years in jail than Nelson Mandela," one of his many admirers reminded me. Strictly speaking, that is not true -- Akef spent 20 years to Mandela's 27 -- but it does explain the mythology of the man. Akef's years in prison, however, did not transform him into Egypt's Mandela. Far from pursuing peace, Akef imagines an uncompromising Islamist future for Egypt, in permanent resistance to what he sees as the colonialist ambitions of Israel and the West. Akef's clarity and boldness have earned him the loyalty of the Brotherhood's suburban grassroots members.
When I asked him how he could support al Qaeda's operations given that they had killed more Muslims than the U.S. soldiers who he claimed were occupiers, Akef said that I was plainly wrong -- it was Blackwater, the American private military company now known as Xe Services, that killed Muslims, not al Qaeda. It was only in the West that we blamed al Qaeda -- in essence, al Qaeda was innocent.
He preferred not to mention Israel by name, but only as "the Zionist entity" that would one day be eroded from the region. He was conscious that Arab countries were currently weak, but insisted that fact should not deflect them from "stating the truth" that "the Zionist enemy" was illegitimate. Without reservation, he supported suicide bombings in Israel and wanted Egypt's new government to support Hamas in every way possible to help it bring an end to Israel.
Clinton has not met with the Muslim Brotherhood because it is a home for thousands of men like Akef. But the United States should not make the mistake that it has made so many times in the past -- that of ignoring the political reality on the ground, most notably as it did following the Iraq war and in the 2006 Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas to power. The Brotherhood is more complex than Akef, and its political development has profound implications for not only Egypt, but the entire region.
What happens in Egypt, a country that has historically wielded immense intellectual influence in the Arab world, doesn't stay in Egypt. As the mother ship of all Islamist extremist groups around the world, the Muslim Brotherhood's tone and tenor in Cairo will impact Islamist activists from Gaza to London. Fortunately, despite Akef's grandstanding, the Muslim Brotherhood is undergoing intellectual and organizational transition. Like every other group in Egypt, the Brotherhood is wondering how best to respond to new sociopolitical circumstances. Unlike other Islamist groups, it does not have a fixed political dogma -- and this pragmatism may be its saving grace.
Akef's suburban appeal does not speak to the aspirations of a newly visible tendency inside the Muslim Brotherhood: the rising force of the under-40s professionals who were vital in the Tahrir Square protests that toppled Mubarak. A leader of this emerging trend is Mohamed El-Shahawy, a country leader for the American multinational conglomerate 3M. Sophisticated, articulate, English-speaking, and involved in the protest movement from day one, El-Shahawy led a group of Brotherhood members that marched from the suburbs of Cairo, overcame police barriers, and joined the revolution.