Will a democratic spring yield to an Islamist winter?

This month’s parliamentary elections in Egypt saw substantial increases for the country’s banned-but-tolerated Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The group more than quintupled its seats, making it second only to Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. In fact, Islamists have made significant gains in Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan and Bahrain since 9/11.

Has the democratic spring led to the beginnings of an Islamist winter?

Shifting attitudes have been a political bonanza for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which, pre–9/11, was quickly plummeting into irrelevance. Newer and more radical groups openly advocating violence were capturing the hearts of many young people, while the Brotherhood, which had renounced terrorism, had floated in an ideological void, somewhere closer to the Christian Coalition than al-Qaeda.

However, a new generation of leadership, many of whom studied abroad, is now steering the Brotherhood’s political message. Talk of “democracy” and “personal freedom” have virtually  replaced the old “Islam is the solution” party line.

“They are very adaptable and today they are playing politics,” says Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist movements at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank in Cairo. And, as a result, “they are growing, they are getting stronger.”

The Brotherhood’s headquarters are on the first floor of an apartment building in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood, across the street from the Nile. It’s a quiet office with green carpeting and Al Jazeera muted on the TV. A blown-up photo of a recent street demonstration greets visitors at the entrance.

On a stifling afternoon several months ago, I met with Dr. Mohamed El Sayed Habib, the group’s genial, 62-year-old deputy leader.

Habib fingered green and white prayer beads throughout our interview, and he wore a well-groomed white beard. Two pens rested in his shirt pocket—indicators of his day job as a geology professor. He studied at the University of Missouri in 1978 and said he still kept in touch with many of the people he met there.

He even implied an ideological kinship with President Bush. “One of the main reasons for Bush’s success in the last election, was his upholding of family values,” he said, referring to the president’s stances against abortion and homosexuality, which Habib condemned as “against the natural law of God’s design.”

“I admire [Bush] on these issues,” he added.

What would a Brotherhood-led Egypt look like? Would it be a friend or a foe of America? Habib was vague, as he was on practically every matter of governance.

This lack of a program is why liberals don’t fear an Islamist takeover any time soon.

“They don’t have visions or policies on how to deal with the nation,” Ashraf El-Feel, a founder of the liberal opposition party, Al Ghad, told me.

Nevertheless, in the fast-approaching post-Mubarak era, all bets are off.