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The Muslim Brotherhood Ascends in Egypt

This just appeared in the NY Times: “‘We’re supporting ElBaradei leading the path to change,” said Mohammed el-Beltagui, a Brotherhood leader and former member of Parliament. ‘The Brotherhood realizes the sensitivities, especially in the West, toward the Islamists. And we are keen not to be at the forefront at this time.’”

Translation: ElBaradei works for us now, and we’ll step forward formally when we’re good and ready.

The Brotherhood has said it will only take part in a unity government (there it is, the inevitable phrase) from which Mubarak’s party has been excluded. Because ElBaradei has apparently allied himself with the Brotherhood, that statement is tantamount to a refusal by ElBaradei to govern together with Suleiman (not that Suleiman would necessarily have been interested in stepping back from any position other than President anyway, now that Mubarak has placed him in line for the top spot — particularly if it means answering to a Brotherhood stand-in). There are now, therefore, two clear sides: the Muslim Brotherhood (fronted by ElBaradei) and Suleiman. We will not see a scenario in which one will temper the other in a unity government. One will defeat the other full stop.

The Americans are in a serious bind here. Suleiman is undoubtedly the more palatable of the two choices from an American perspective, but ElBaradei — the fig leaf for an Islamist, anti-democratic organization — is ostensibly a pro-democracy figure at the head of a popular uprising against a repressive autocrat. It’s difficult to see how the US can possibly back Suleiman — the dictator’s designate — over the putative democrat. According to al-Jazeera, protesters in Cairo are already chanting, “Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans.”

Still, the game isn’t over. As ever, beware the hasty generalization. It may be probable, but it is not a given that an election pitting ElBaradei against Suleiman would result in an ElBaradei landslide. The Times spoke to Sarah Elyashy, “a 33-year-old woman in the neighborhood of Heliopolis, where men armed with broomsticks and kitchen knives took to the streets to defend their homes against the threat of looters. ‘I wish we could be like the United States with our own democracy, but we can’t,’ [she] said. ‘We have to have a ruler with an iron hand.'”

Whether or not you approve the sentiment, there may be many others who feel the way she does — to say nothing of Egyptians who are determined to see democracy overtake autocracy but are horrified at the prospect of opening the door to an Islamist takeover. A tenth of Egypt’s population is Christian, and they, as well as other groups, will not be inclined to welcome the Brotherhood with open arms. Assume nothing, in other words. We are watching the contenders take up positions. We don’t know yet which way the contest is going to end.

Still. A commenter on one of my earlier posts asked if the Israelis are starting to get nervous. This one is.