CAIRO (Reuters) - After waiting 83 years, the Muslim Brotherhood finally senses a chance to be at the center of how Egypt is governed and the Islamists hope to lead the renaissance of a nation which has suffered a steep economic and political decline.
That ambition above all else will define the next steps of a group which owes its survival to pragmatism. The Brotherhood will likely carry on treading lightly, hoping to ease fears at home and abroad over its vision for the new Egypt.
A strong Brotherhood showing in elections which began this week has brought the country closer to a prospect unthinkable just a year ago: a government influenced and possibly even led by a group outlawed under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Headed by doctors, engineers and teachers, the Brotherhood’s slogan is “Islam is the solution.” Yet it talks the same language as other reformists when it comes to the need for democracy, an independent judiciary and social justice in Egypt.
Its critics say such language masks their goals of turning Egypt into an Islamic state by stealth, curbing freedoms for 80 million people who include some eight million Christian Copts.
At the group’s office, a simple apartment building in a residential district on the Nile, one of the group’s leaders outlines a political program that has triggered comparisons with moderate Islamist groups elsewhere in the region.
“Now is the time for us to build a modern country, a modern state of law, a democratic state,” said Essam al-Erian, a doctor who was a political prisoner when Mubarak was deposed in February, and who is also a leader of the Brotherhood’s newly-founded political party.
He rejected a comparison between his movement and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, which has Islamist roots. “I hope we can give a different model,” Erian told Reuters in an interview.
“We hope that when we build a modern democratic country in Egypt this will be a good example, inspiring others to build democracy,” he added.
Those are the long-stated aims of a group that was a vocal critic of Mubarak during his three decades in power. The president maintained a formal ban on the Brotherhood, routinely rounding up and imprisoning leaders such as Erian.
That reflects the Islamist group’s turbulent relationship with the state since it was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, himself a teacher. Though the Brotherhood disavowed violence in Egypt in the 1970s, state suspicions lingered over its goals.
In the post-Mubarak era, it faces new competition from more radical Islamist groups that have emerged as rivals. Brotherhood leaders have spoken about the new Salafi parties with disregard, bordering on disdain. But on the streets, the groups cooperated in the run-up to the election that began Monday.
That has only strengthened a view among secular Egyptians and a broader section of society that the Brotherhood shares the Salafis’ appetite for tighter implementation of Islamic law.
Some wonder whether the group might ban mixed beach bathing or the sale of alcohol. Such measures would hit a tourism sector that employs one in eight Egyptians.
The 79-page manifesto of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party does little to ease such worries. For instance, it criticizes Egypt’s music scene for “stirring desires.”
“Egyptian song must be directed toward more ethical and creative horizons that are consistent with the society’s values and identity,” the document says.
Ali Khafagi, a 28-year-old Brotherhood activist, says fears about the group are overblown. A member since high school, he describes the Brotherhood as “very moderate and open minded.”
“The Brotherhood’s goal is to end corruption and start reform and economic development and that is what attracted many of its supporters to join it including myself,” he said.
Khafagi dismissed talk about the Brotherhood banning alcohol or forcing women to wear headscarves if it came to power.
“That could only be done by a mad group and the Brotherhood is not a mad group, but a decent logical group with a good understanding of the Egyptian people and Islam,” he added.
The Brotherhood’s future policies are as much a source of concern abroad as at home.
In the United States, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid each year, figures including U.S. Senator John McCain have voiced concerns. McCain in March warned about the group’s rise leading to a “more extreme” form of government.
But in recognition of the role they expect the Brotherhood to play, the U.S. government is now in touch with the group.
Foreign governments wonder how the Brotherhood might act if it gained a major say in foreign policy, defined in the Mubarak era by an alliance with the United States and peace with Israel.
The ideological parent of the Palestinian group Hamas, which is classified by Washington as a terrorist organization, the Brotherhood does not hide its enmity toward Israel.
Its leaders say they would not cancel the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but have spoken about the possibility of putting it to a referendum. More likely would be preserving the deal while cancelling all forms of cooperation with Israel, diplomats say.
In the near term, analysts and diplomats expect the Brotherhood to avoid areas of controversy, instead focusing on reforms around which it can build consensus.
“From our conversations with the Muslim Brotherhood, we expect them to be pragmatic and to work with a broad range of partners to find solutions to the difficult political and economic problems facing Egypt,” a Western diplomat said.
Conscious of the concerns of fellow Egyptians, the Brotherhood could try to build a coalition in the new parliament with secular groups, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
“They will go out of their way to show they are going to work with leftist and liberal groups,” he said.
They must also manage their relationship with the ruling military council, a legacy of the Mubarak era.
Though they have backed the generals’ plan for the post-Mubarak transition to civilian rule, the Islamists distrust the military’s strategy and want an end to its role in government.
The Brotherhood’s call for parliament to form a new government in January when the elections conclude could set the stage for confrontation with the military because only last Saturday the generals said that would remain their prerogative.
But above all, the Brotherhood, which gained trust by aiding the poor during the Mubarak years, will aim for economic growth to ease poverty and convince voters they are fit to govern.
“They are going to have to deliver something. The bread and butter issues will be their focus,” Hamid said. “They still care about Islamisation, though it doesn’t figure prominently in their rhetoric these days,” he added.
“They will be consumed with economic policies.”
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Millership and Alistair Lyon