LONDON: The past never disappears in the Middle East. It only temporarily fades, and then returns with a vengeance. That is certainly the case with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which always failed to win power but is now the biggest beneficiary from the Arab Spring revolutions.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, recently elected to helm the region's most populous nation, belongs to the Brotherhood. So do the coalition parties in Tunisia. And, should the revolt in Syria end with President Bashar al-Assad's overthrow, the Muslim Brotherhood is certain to step in.
But who are these 'brothers' and what will they do with their newly acquired powers? No clear answers can be provided, for the Middle East's oldest political movement remains an enigma. And no Brotherhood leader is in any rush to dispel the mystery either.
Founded in 1928 by school teacher Hassan al-Banna as the Society of the Muslim Brothers and usually referred to by its simple Arabic abbreviation of 'Ikhwan', the organisation's behaviour was always contradictory. Its emblem is the Quran and the sword, although one or the other is emphasised at different times. Its ideology is pan-Arabic, but in practice, the Brotherhood's preoccupation was always Egypt.
And for a movement which spent almost a century dreaming about power, the Brotherhood remains curiously reticent about grabbing it: It enjoys its clandestine image, and prefers to participate in elections through proxies.
But the biggest problem is the absence of a clear ideology. Al-Banna was neither a scholar nor intellectual, as he proudly reminded his followers: "I might not have left a lot of books with you but my job is to write men rather than to write books," he said towards the end of his life. And, in over six decades that followed al-Banna's death, the Brotherhood produced no ideologue.
But, far from being a weakness, this has always been the movement's political strength, for it allowed it to be all things to all people. To a younger generation, the Brotherhood promises a fairer society, one in which a profit motive will no longer be the driving force. To older people, it promises the revival of traditional values as an antidote to the forces of modernisation. Revolution and restoration, rolled into one.
Historically, the Brotherhood was the Middle East's perennial loser. The pan-Arabism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the socialism of the Baath party, which until recently ruled Iraq and continues to rule Syria, or the old-fashioned monarchical rule of the Arab peninsula proved much more potent, shaping the Middle East as we know it today. And, more recently, extremist groups such as Al Qaeda have attracted far more attention from Arab youth than the middle-aged 'brothers' who languished in jail for decades.
However, the Ikhwan may be the political equivalent of a long-distance runner who lets all other competitors overtake, only to win the race with a last-minute sprint. The very fact that it never had to exercise real power means that it is untainted by the failures of all previous Arab regimes. But its biggest advantage is that despite its claim to represent a uniquely Arab phenomenon, the Brotherhood's organisation resembles that of a typical western political movement.
Ikhwan leaders are professionals — doctors, dentists and architects — and some, such as Egyptian President Mursi, are western-educated.
This gives them the kind of respectability few other Arab movements enjoy. And because the movement had to survive decades of persecution, it has developed its own survival instincts — anywhere it’s thrown, it lands on its feet, just like a cat.
The Brotherhood claims that it supports a pluralistic democracy in Egypt and has no intention to use violence. Still, the movement has a history of creating paramilitary militias which did use force; After all, it was the assassination of an Egyptian prime minister which led to the violent death of al-Banna, the Brotherhood's founder, in February 1948. And it was a subsequent attempt to assassinate Egyptian president Nasser which led to the Brotherhood's brutal suppression in October 1954.
The reality is that the Brotherhood resorted to violence when this seemed expedient. And although all its leaders denounced bloodshed, they faced challenges from rank-and-file members who wanted to use force.
The problem is not only whether the Brotherhood is serious about its current promises to respect individual freedoms — there is also a question mark over the organisation's ability to deliver on its promises.
The manner by which the Brotherhood came to power in Egypt only raises further questions about the movement's objectives. In the early stages of the transition, it claimed not to be interested in the Egyptian presidency, but only in having parliamentary representation. Yet, having scored an electoral triumph in Parliament, it then contested the presidency.
The 'now you see it, now you don't' game continues. President Mursi accepted power on the understanding that new elections for Parliament will take place. Yet days after entering the presidential palace, he convened the old Parliament into session.