AS DRAMATIC protests calling for reform and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak continue across Egypt, the only thing that seems certain in this volatile environment is the uncertainty. The questions: How long will the demonstrations last, will Mubarak leave of his own accord, and who will take the reins of the new government?
Now, after more than a week of protests, significant concerns are surfacing about the role of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the demonstrations and, more important, in the aftermath of the uprising.
Will the Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest, largest and best-organized opposition movement, try to hijack this grass-roots uprising and turn Egypt into a radical Islamic state?
Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton warned on Fox News that the Muslim Brotherhood is "maneuvering in a situation of potential anarchy to take advantage of it. That's one reason why it's so dangerous and why we're so vulnerable to a really radical regime coming to power."
"This is a difficult situation," Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair told CNN. Then he warned, "You don't just have a government and a movement for democracy. You also have others, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, who would take this in a different direction altogether."
But there are several compelling reasons to tone down the fearmongering about the Brotherhood.
Yes, any future representative government in Egypt, a 90 percent Islamic country, is likely to include Islamists. But Egypt in 2011 is not 1979 Iran, nor will it become 1991 Algeria, with the concerns about "one man, one vote, one time."
The Muslim Brotherhood won't commandeer this budding revolution - it's shown restraint in the crisis, and seeks legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people.
The Brotherhood has a history of moderation and pragmatism, especially compared to many other militant Islamist movements. It rejected violence decades ago. And, despite being officially banned, it has fielded independent candidates in parliamentary elections since 1984, even forming electoral alliances with secularists, nationalists and liberals. In 2005, it won 88 seats, 20 percent of parliament.
The Brotherhood has also shown restraint during these protests, not officially participating for the first several days. Most likely, the organization was caught off guard by the suddenness of the uprising, and decided to lie low in the early stages to see how successful the protests would be.
But it's taken a more active role since Friday, encouraging members and supporters to participate in the demonstrations, negotiating with other opposition leaders to form a national unity government in the event that Mubarak finally steps down and endorsing Nobel Prize-winner Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular liberal, as the leader of the opposition. Still, this is not the Brotherhood's revolution.
Most important is the Brotherhood's quest for legitimacy. It's aware that not all Egyptians, especially secular and Christian ones, support its agenda. It can't afford to alienate large portions of the population by appearing too eager to grab power through illegitimate means.
I think the Brotherhood really wants free and fair elections, through which it believes it can demonstrate its genuine popularity among Egyptians.
The White House has declared there will be no contact with the Brotherhood until the movement provides assurances that it will adhere to the law, reject violence and is willing to be part of a democratic process.
But, the Brotherhood has demonstrated its commitment to these values for years. It is an integral part of Egyptian society and - since no one can predict the exact outcome of these events - it's in the U.S.' best interests to open channels of communication with all the political factors in Egypt to build useful relationships for the post-Mubarak era.
Sarah Salwen is a Ph.D. candidate at Penn. She lived in Cairo in 2009 while researching her dissertation on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in Jordan and Israel.