While American angst at protests in Egypt centers on fear of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power, the protests caught the Islamist group as flatfooted as they did President Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s best organized opposition group, but its victory is not predetermined. As the Brotherhood and its Western cheerleaders say the group eschews violence, Egyptians are not so sure: They remember the group’s sponsorship of violence in the 1990s and before, and outrages such as the forcible divorce of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a leading Egyptian scholar, after his support for reform within Islam upset the Muslim Brotherhood’s blind support for more conservative interpretations of religion.
As the Muslim Brotherhood looks ahead, it will play populist cards to rally people to its banner. During and after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Brotherhood demanded that Egypt abrogate its peace treaty with Israel. That is an easy demand to make in opposition, but a more costly one to make when in power.
More likely, the Brotherhood and other opposition will demand the repatriation of the estimated $25 billion that Mubarak and his family have squirreled away over the past three decades. Much of this money resides in Europe, where son Gamal and wife Suzanne have now fled. Here, European governments will be on the hot seat, even as Egyptians amplify them to represent the West as a whole. During the Iranian revolution, demands for the return of the Shah’s assets remained a thorny problem which far outlived the Shah himself.
Where does this leave the United States? Mubarak’s departure will be the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. As difficult as President Obama may have found crisis management during the last several days, the trickiest part is still to come. Rather than simply observe the crisis, the White House now will have to avoid tripping mines laid by the Brotherhood as it works to undercut Brotherhood attempts to consolidate control.