CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood, long relegated to the fringes of Egyptian politics, is playing a growing role in the popular revolt against President Hosni Mubarak but is still defining its goals for the country, according to political analysts familiar with the Islamist movement.
And late Thursday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is discussing a proposal for Mubarak to step down that also calls for the government to invite members from a range of opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to begin work to open up the country's electoral system in an effort to bring about free and fair elections in September.
The administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a plan for Mubarak, 82, to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, the newspaper reported, citing administration officials and Arab diplomats.
The newspaper said the proposal is one of several options under discussion in an effort to convince Mubarak to step down now. The report also said officials cautioned that the outcome depended on several factors, not least of all the mood of the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities and the dynamics within the Egyptian government.
Under the one-party regime that Mubarak has run for three decades, the Brotherhood has been officially outlawed but generally tolerated. Still, it has become Egypt's best-organized political movement, claiming 400,000 members.
The Brotherhood has long opposed Mubarak, yet it was caught unprepared by the uprising, and its leadership initially was reluctant to take part in demonstrations.
Several days into the protests, it began flexing its muscle, joining the loose coalition of opposition groups and reaching out to Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize laureate who has claimed the leadership mantle. It also publicly stated its precondition for talks with the government: that Mubarak first resign.
Vice President Suleiman, in an interview broadcast Thursday on state television, called for that dialogue to start now.
"We have contacted the Muslim Brotherhood and invited them, but they are still hesitant about the dialogue," he said. "I think that their interest is to attend the dialogue."
There's no question that fundamentalist elements persist among the Islamists. Egyptian liberals, who view the Brotherhood as a risky ally, say the group represents no more than a fraction of the country's 80 million people.
"The role and influence of the Brother Muslims have been exaggerated intentionally by the Egyptian regime for years, just to send the message to the West that either you accept the dictatorship in Egypt or prepare for another Taliban or Hamas in power. This is not true at all," said Alaa al-Aswany, an acclaimed Egyptian novelist who supports the antigovernment protesters.
Mubarak had demonized the movement as fundamentalist, putting it in the same category as al-Qaida and the Taliban, and Israel has long expressed fears that the demise of Mubarak would open the way to an extremist regime. Yet the Brotherhood said earlier this week that it would recognize all of Egypt's international treaties, a thinly veiled reference to the country's longtime peace agreement with Israel.
To many observers, the reference signaled a willingness by the Brotherhood to negotiate with Western powers. Still, the Brotherhood eventually would like to put Egypt's pact with Israel on the ballot in a national referendum, which would all but assure its rejection.
"Unfortunately, the Western countries and the United States don't recognize anything other than their own agendas and interests, and ensuring the safety of the Zionist entity," said Gamal Nassar, a spokesman for the Brotherhood in Cairo, referring to Israel. "That's okay. They have to protect their interests, but the problem is that we shouldn't follow or submit to their agenda."
Bruce Riedel, a veteran observer of the Muslim world at the Brookings Institution, said the United States has no choice but to accept the group's role.
"If we really want democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a big part of the picture," said Riedel, who was working as the Egypt desk officer at the Central Intelligence Agency when Mubarak came to power in 1981. "Rather than demonizing them, we ought to start engaging them now."
American politicians and pundits have used the Brotherhood as a sort of bogeyman, tagging it as a radical menace and the grandfather of al-Qaida.
That lineage is accurate in a literal sense — some al-Qaida leaders, notably the terror network's Egyptian second-in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, have roots in the organization.
But al-Qaida leaders despise the Brotherhood precisely because it has renounced violence and chosen to compete in elections.
"The Brotherhood hates al-Qaida and al-Qaida hates the Brotherhood," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "So if we're talking about counterterrorism, engaging with the Brotherhood will advance our interests in the region."
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times was used in this report.