It is apparent that the Muslim Brotherhood is positioning itself for a role in a post-Mubarak Egypt. The al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen has emerged as the largest and most organised political opposition in the country. The group initially stayed away from the uprising, perhaps unsure of how, as an Islamist movement, it should respond to the spontaneous and non-religious character of the protests. But when it became clear that the snowballing protests had loosened President Hosni Mubarak's grip on Egypt, the Ikhwan made it known that it could not be ignored in the transition to a new set-up. Using its organisational strengths, the Ikhwan mobilised large numbers of its supporters for the protests. And despite being banned from political activity, it accepted with alacrity an invitation from Vice-President Omar Suleiman for discussions on how the political transition should take place. The objective of the Brotherhood is to create a state governed by the Sharia but in recent days it has hastened to project a more pragmatic image of itself to domestic and international audiences. This has been through reassurances that it was working towards a democracy in Egypt.

Indeed, some of the fears surrounding the Ikhwan were clearly exaggerated by Mr. Mubarak to his main benefactor, the United States, in order to perpetuate his regime. Even so, concerns remain about what the rise of the “brothers” could mean for Egypt itself, for the volatile West Asian region, and for the rest of the world. Formed in 1928 as an Islamist nationalist movement to fight the colonial regime, it spawned several offshoots and has become influential in countries across the region. A key question to emerge from the unfolding uprising in Egypt is what it holds for the Palestine-Israel conflict, particularly as the Palestinian Hamas is a wing of the Brotherhood. The group has officially renounced violence and is critical of al-Qaeda. For Egyptians who count themselves as secular and moderate, the Ikhwan's views on religious minorities and women, and its other illiberal beliefs are a source of major concern. But it is still an open question if it can emerge as the most powerful political force in a democratic Egypt. In the Mubarak regime, it enjoyed support among Egypt's middle classes as it was the only opposition. It fared well even in the country's notoriously fraudulent 2005 elections, winning as many as 80 parliamentary seats out of a total of 454. A brutal crackdown on the Ikhwan by a rattled regime ensured it did not win any seats in the 2010 elections. Even though in recent days it might have lost points for its initial reluctance to join the protests, and then for engaging with the regime on transition talks, a fair election would see it doing well. For now, though, it would have to compete with other political forces.