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The question of what Islamists want has acquired new urgency, thanks to Egypt's ongoing elections -- which appear poised to hand the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, Freedom and Justice (FJP), more than 40 percent of the seats in parliament. But despite the perception of the Brotherhood as rigid and hard-line, the fact is that even Islamists themselves are not entirely sure what they want.
Western observers have placed undue focus on the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology. Yet for most Egyptian political parties, FJP included, beliefs rarely accurately predict behavior. As I argued in the May/June 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs ("The Rise of the Islamists"), the Brotherhood -- far from being ideologically inflexible -- is a thoroughly political actor, routinely compromising on ideals to pursue organizational interests. That makes it far more fluid and prepared to change than many now assume.
In fact, the Brotherhood's Islamism is difficult to detect from its declared policies, most of which actually have little to do with Islamic law. The days of the 1980s, when the group made sharia its call to arms, are long gone. Islamism is best understood as the motivator of the Brotherhood's actions rather than their product. Because the Brotherhood is a religious movement with a comprehensive educational curriculum and a complex, multitiered membership structure, every Brother, by definition, is religiously conservative. Brotherhood members feel little need to prove their religious bona fides.
Of course, there is a more intransigent faction gaining ground in Cairo. Evident from the voting, the Brotherhood no longer holds a monopoly on the votes of conservative Egyptians - hard-line Salafis, who advocate a literalist reading of Islamic law, will make up the second-largest bloc in parliament, with around 20 percent of seats. Having long eschewed politics for both theological and practical reasons, they are political novices. Therein lies their popular appeal; for the moment, they seem oblivious to the compromises inherent in political life.
Whereas Salafis seem overeager, however, the Brotherhood is playing the long game. Its members tend to give off an unhurried air, something that, during the years of repression under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was often mistaken for acquiescence or resignation. When you believe history is on your side, all you need to do is wait for the right moment. And now that moment has presumably come for the Brotherhood. The question is what to do with it.
In years past, the Brotherhood distanced itself from the Turkish Islamists under Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, whom they saw as unfaithful to the Islamist program, morphing into little more than European-style conservative democrats. But having emerged from Mubarak's repression with a real chance of ruling, the Brotherhood is increasingly looking toward the Turkish model. What the Brotherhood has absorbed from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party is that strong economic growth makes everything else easier. If you raise people's living standards, they are more likely to listen to you on noneconomic matters. Perhaps more important, the Brotherhood believes Egyptians will associate any such economic success with the "Islamic project" -- a sort of Arab Calvinist dream.
For that to happen, the Brotherhood must first be in a position to preside over Egypt's economic affairs. So it is no accident that the group's top priority is revising the country's decaying political structures. Under existing legal and constitutional frameworks, Egypt remains a top-heavy presidential system with a weak legislative branch. As the largest represented bloc, the Brotherhood hopes to push for a pure parliamentary system with a largely ceremonial president. Some of this, to be sure, is blatant self-interest. Parliamentary democracy -- a system that rewards party discipline, back-door negotiating, and flexible coalition-building -- is almost tailor-made for such groups as the Brotherhood, which seems to take pleasure in bare-knuckled political maneuvering. A stronger parliament would give the Brotherhood a powerful platform for challenging the ruling military council, which appears increasingly unwilling to let go of power. Some of it, however, goes beyond short-term objectives. Due to decades of repression under three successive presidents, the Brotherhood is wary that a strongman might emerge once again.
Indeed, as a highly institutionalized, hierarchical organization, the Brotherhood has always prioritized structures over individuals. It is telling that, in recent decades, the Brotherhood has failed to produce any charismatic leaders on the national level. So when it comes to Egyptian politics, the Brothers are also institutionalists.
But the presence of the Salafis threatens to complicate matters. If the Brotherhood feels that it must move to the center -- to reassure liberal skeptics and the international community -- then it will. If it feels it needs to move to the right -- to compete with Salafis -- then it will do that instead. But it could also do both, conceding some things to liberals while reasserting religious credentials to rally its conservative base. Already, this is the approach -- whether by design or default -- for which the Brotherhood appears to be opting. In the country's conservative rural villages, where it faces off against Salafis, the group reminds voters of its history of persecution and reverts to fiery religious rhetoric. In Cairo, in the media, and in meetings with visiting delegations of policymakers and investors, the Brotherhood presents its most sensible face. Some of the Brotherhood's critics call this a "dual discourse." Others, however, call it politics.