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Is the Muslim Brotherhood Behind the Egyptian Uprising?

No, it isn’t.

That is not to say that that Islamist, profoundly anti-democratic organization (which, by the way, is technically banned in Egypt, although its members hide in plain sight as “independent” critics of the government) will not maneuver its way to the forefront, nor that it will not ultimately hijack the movement for its own ends. But this appears by all accounts to be a genuine popular uprising, inspired by the eviction of the Tunisian dictator by his own people. The Brotherhood has not directed any of the Egyptian demonstrations or even ordered its followers to attend, although it has announced that it will participate in a demonstration after noon prayers today. Still, to be on the safe side, the Egyptian security services — whose efforts to defend the beleaguered regime have not abated and have in fact been redoubled, despite calls from high places to cool it — have taken at least twenty senior members of the Brotherhood into custody. Al-Arabiya reports that those arrested include five former members of parliament.

The Egyptian uprising remains leaderless (although probably not for long: keep an eye on pro-democracy figure Mohammed ElBaradei, who returned from his exile in Vienna yesterday and will appear at a demonstration today). The protesters are enraged by high prices, rampant unemployment and a brutal, autocratic government. Their rage can certainly be tapped by an organized movement with an Islamist agenda, but Islamists are by no means the only players in the field. The window of opportunity is open, possibly very briefly, for both the forces of good and the forces of darkness.

I realize that that sounds melodramatic, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough what is at stake here. This could be the moment at which Egypt, an American ally and the first Arab country to make peace with Israel (however cold that peace might be), emerges into the light of true, pluralistic, liberal democracy. It could also be the moment when Egypt descends irrevocably into the dark night of theocratic repression — a descent that would have incalculable consequences, not only for Egyptians but also for Americans and for the world.

President Obama will have to take an unequivocal stand one way or the other, and he’ll have to do it fast. To stand politely on the sidelines of an upheaval as geopolitically important as this is to concede defeat. We should not underestimate the difficulty of Obama’s task here — support, if mishandled, can be perceived as intervention, which could then hopelessly delegitimize the movement for change — but if ever there was a time for the American president to demonstrate his intelligence, diplomatic skill, foresight, and commitment to democracy, that moment is now.