The irony of non-Islamists' antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood is that the current version of the organization happens to be the moderate, reconstructed version. For all its considerable faults, the Brotherhood of today is not the Brotherhood of the early 1980s, when calls for tatbiq al-sharia ("application of Islamic law") were its core demand. This was not just rhetorical: As the Islamic revival intensified, the formal effort to synchronize Egyptian law with sharia won the support of Egypt's most powerful men, such as Sufi Abu Talib, the speaker of parliament and a close associate of President Anwar Sadat. By 1982, Abu Talib's committees had painstakingly produced hundreds of pages of draft legislation (which were for the most part never implemented), including 513 articles on tort reform, 443 on the maritime code, and 635 articles on criminal punishments.
Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood was more a sharia lobby than a political party, with a seemingly obsessive focus on Islamic law. The 1987 electoral program of the "Islamic alliance" -- a coalition of the Brotherhood and two smaller parties -- allowed little room for dissent on such a fundamental matter: "Implementation of sharia is a religious obligation and a necessity for the nation. This is not something that is up for discussion; it is incumbent upon every Muslim to fulfill God's commandments by governing by his law." The push for sharia would be, the program says, "a massive national undertaking that will require experts to devise how to apply Islamic law in a variety of realms."
The Brotherhood took steps to smooth over the hard edges of its political program during the next two decades, culminating in its 2005 electoral platform -- the centerpiece of the group's effort to rebrand itself and offer a vision for political and institutional reform. Democracy, rather than sharia, was the new call-to-arms. Much of the program focused on how to establish a workable system of check and balances and ensure the independence of local government from the central executive. Interestingly, one of the program's longest sections is on "financial and administrative decentralization," where the Brotherhood calls for "transferring powers and the authorities of the ministries to the governorates," including the ability to impose and collect taxes. Indeed, if there is a dominant theme that runs throughout the 2005 platform, it is the notion that the executive branch has too much power, which it abuses at will. (It makes for dispiriting reading in light of today's top-heavy constitution, which enshrines a too powerful presidency.)
After the revolution, the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), made a major flip-flop -- they are now apparently believers in a strong president, at the expense of parliament and local government. But they still seem to genuinely think that they are democrats, and their rhetoric, perhaps today more than ever, is replete with references to electoral legitimacy and the will of popular majorities. As for the constitution, they insist it is a moderate, consensus-driven document. From the Brotherhood's perspective, the constitution's Islamic content is minimal: In a stark contrast to the 1980s, the Brotherhood actually pushed back against Salafi demands that the "rulings" rather than the "principles" of Islamic law be the primary source of legislation.
Liberals would tell an almost completely different story, and their disagreements are based on process as much as substance. Recently, at the Brookings Doha Center, we held our third "Transitions Dialogue," where we brought together Islamists and liberal representatives along with U.S. officials to seek out areas of consensus. Depending how you looked at it, the participants were either very far apart or surprisingly close together. It was hard to tell, since they seemed to have different interpretations of reality and often couldn't even agree on what they disagreed on. Some of the differences were on procedure -- including the decision to appoint 50 Islamists and 50 non-Islamists to the Constituent Assembly, which one human rights activist called the "birth defect" of the process.
From the very beginning, liberals have complained of an assembly "dominated" by Islamists, where each camp became entrenched in its position and voted as a bloc. And they were right: Islamists set the assembly's agenda and led and oversaw the constitution-drafting process. Brotherhood and Salafi representatives, however, felt that the 50/50 agreement was, in fact, a major concession on their part. If the assembly was elected, rather than appointed, Islamists pointed out that they would likely have taken at least 70 percent of the seats. As for content, they were only calling for the "principles" of sharia, rather than its "rulings," as the Salafis had wanted, to be the main source of legislation. The constitution has a few Islamically flavored articles, but for the most part it is a mediocre -- and somewhat boring -- document, based as it was on the similarly mediocre 1971 constitution. This, too, Islamists treat as a concession to their opponents, arguing they could have had stronger Islamic clauses but instead compromised with liberals -- angering many Salafis in the process.