Zeki Bany Arshead is the Muslim Brotherhood's new man in Amman. The general secretary of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's Jordanian chapter, might be expected to spout the rhetoric of his predecessors—heavy on Qur'anic injunctions and talk of a Pan-Arabic Islamic "caliphate." So what's all this about democracy? "Our minimum demand," he says from his businesslike offices in downtown Amman, "is for freedom of expression and assembly, real elections with multiple parties, rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press."
This isn't your father's Muslim Brotherhood. It's still the world's oldest and largest Islamist movement. But as with Arshead himself, these days it's gone heavy on populism—and light on God. Known as the Ikhwan in Arabic, renowned for its conservative and often backward ways, it now counts women as members. Once wary of engaging in the parochial rough-and-tumble of politics, it increasingly collaborates with non-Muslim and even secular groups pushing for democratic reform. That "big tent" political pragmatism is now helping the Brotherhood move decisively into the Arab mainstream, scoring big election advances from Morocco to Egypt to Lebanon as the champion of the little man concerned with such daily life issues as heath care, the price of cooking oil and good, clean government. Washington seems to be taking note. Earlier this month, a delegation of U.S. congressmen met a group of Egyptian lawmakers that included a senior Ikhwan leader—once at the Egyptian Parliament and again for dinner at the U.S. ambassador's residence. "The Brotherhood has become more moderate as it matures," says Adnan Abu Odeh, a Palestinian activist in Amman. "The new generation cares more about power than God."
The transformation is evident at the polls. In Bahrain, following elections in 2002, the Brotherhood captured 17.5 percent of the legislature. In Libya, the Ikhwan has become the largest opposition party, though it maintains a low profile to avoid the capricious wrath of secular strongman Muammar Kaddafi. In Egypt, the Ikhwan won 88 out of 454 legislative seats in a December 2005 election marred by government fraud and intimidation, making it the largest opposition party there, too. (So fearful is the Egyptian regime of the Brotherhood's influence, in fact, that it recently amended the Constitution to ban political parties based on religion.) The Brotherhood is expected to win a significant plurality, if not a majority, of parliamentary seats in Jordan's national elections this fall. It's also expected to win the largest number of votes in Morocco's upcoming parliamentary vote.
If it once was the very epitome of radical Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood today draws its growing strength from precisely the opposite—its perceived balance between the ideological extremes of Al Qaeda and the administration of George W. Bush. Their cosmic struggle of good versus evil is of scant concern to most Muslims, and the Brotherhood knows it. Ask an ordinary Arab what it stands for, and the likely response would be affordable health care, schools and vocational training. Far from constituting a dangerous underground, the Muslim Brotherhood increasingly draws its core constituency from the ranks of law-abiding professional elites—pious doctors, lawyers, engineers and educators alienated equally by U.S. policies and Al Qaeda's violent intolerance. "Does Muslim Brotherhood want to be the ruling party?" asks Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the supreme guide of the Ikhwan's Egyptian chapter. "Yes, but only through the ballot box."
In contrast to the region's corrupt and lethargic governments, the Muslim Brotherhood is respected for delivering on an impressive array of social programs, especially for the poor and disenfranchised. It finances a sewage-treatment plant in the slums of Cairo. In Jordan, it runs one of Amman's largest hospitals, offering free medical services to those who might not otherwise receive health care. In Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, it runs schools and job programs.
The Ikhwan has not foresworn its former political agenda, to be sure. In Jordan and elsewhere, for example, it advocates an Islamic justice system.
And certainly, Middle East regimes have cause to be concerned. "They are increasingly afraid," says a senior Western diplomat in Cairo—not merely because the Brotherhood might come to power, but because it might rule more honestly and effectively than those currently in office. But from the point of view of the Arab man on the street, would that be so bad?