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And So It Begins: The Muslim Brotherhood Flexes Its Muscles

Well, that didn’t take long.

The Islamic fundamentalists at the helm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are now calling openly for “modesty police” to combat so-called “immorality” in public areas. There has also been, in addition to a rise in Islamist attacks on Christians, a rash of desecrations of tombs of popular Muslim mystics (suffis) of whom the Islamists disapprove.

Maye Kassem, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, calls these developments “incredibly worrying to many Egyptians. The salafis [Islamic fundamentalists] were always undercover in Egypt and now they are emerging as a political force. They are getting too vocal.” She warns that the elections planned for September are scheduled too soon to allow liberal opposition parties to organize and will almost certainly result in “a dictatorship, which is not what we were fighting for.”

The Islamists in Egypt are shrewd judges of timing and are already organized, giving them a tremendous leg up in the rush toward September. The persistent desire among distant observers to perceive Tahrir Square as having been a beacon of incipient pluralism is giving the Islamists the latitude to come out of the closet and start mouthing off with impunity, an opportunity they are seizing with gusto.

Issam Durbala, a member of the Brotherhood’s Shura council, told the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm that he favors the establishment of a virtue police along the lines of that which existed in medieval Islamic societies. “The new police must have a department with limited authorities to arrest those who commit immoral acts,” he said, referring apparently to violations of dress and behavior in marketplaces and other public areas. Sa’id Abd Al-Azim, a leader of the salafi movement in Alexandria, instructed Egyptian Christians to Muslim up quick or face the consequences: “If the Christians want safety they should submit to the rule of God and be confident that the Islamic sharia will protect them.”

Nagib Gibrail, a Coptic attorney and head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights, warns that there are already “areas in Egypt where Christian girls can’t walk outside after eight o’clock in the evening for fear of being kidnapped. Moderate Muslims should be more scared than Christians. It is very worrying that the military regime hasn’t issued a statement declaring Egypt a secular state.”

Not only has the military done no such thing, but it has extended a hand to Iran. Last week, Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Al-Arabi, expressed a hope that Egypt would “[open] a new page with all countries, including Iran,” a gesture reciprocated by Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi. Shiite Iran and the Sunni Brotherhood are hardly inevitable allies, but Iran has gone a long way toward mending fences by arming and financing Hamas, the Brotherhood’s arm in Gaza. Neither party is averse to a marriage of convenience, and Iran in particular will do whatever it can to establish itself in Egypt.

Western audiences might not be able to spare much attention for moderates like Maye Kassem, but perhaps they’ll listen to American-Yemeni cleric and Al-Qaeda mouthpiece Anwar al-Awlaki. “I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahedeen activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria and Morocco?” he wrote last week in Inspire, Al-Qaeda’s English language magazine. “The mujahedeen around the world are going through a moment of elation.”