During the Hosni Mubarak era of Egypt, anyone deemed to be an extremist member of the group was arrested, but more moderate Brothers were permitted to thrive. In return, the Brotherhood initially supported the Mubarak government, until they grew too strong, and the regime cracked down again.
The Arab Spring changed all of that. Following Mubarak's overthrow in February 2011, the Brotherhood was finally legalized in Egypt, where they now have the largest following among the populace. The founding of the Freedom and Justice Party quickly followed, as did victory in the June 2012 elections. Egypt, one the world's oldest nations, now has its first democratically elected leader in 5,000 years, headed by the party that was once the most reviled in the country.
The Brotherhood now claims moderation, and has set itself up as the centrist party in the Assembly. Not hard to do, considering the second-largest group in the Assembly, the Salafist al-Nour party, is an even more extreme and theocratic. The Salafists of al-Nour and the Islamists of the Brotherhood have formed a formidable right-wing coalition against fragmented and ineffective liberals and leftists.
Then, on Nov. 22, President Mohamed Morsi announced he was assigning himself sweeping emergency powers that made him immune from judicial oversight. At the same time, the draft of the new Egyptian constitution was hurriedly pushed through the right wing-dominated Assembly.
The Islamists blundered if they assumed the public would simply accept Morsi as their new ("temporary," he claimed) pharaoh, and that they would think this constitution, crammed with Islamist language and short on rights for minorities, women and due process for civilians, was an acceptable set of rules for life in Egypt. Suddenly mass protests against the new government, now being dubbed a "regime," erupted again in Tahrir Square, outside the presidential palace, and across the country. The double blow of Morsi's new powers and what the opposition said was an unrepresentative constitution drew the ire of world leaders in the U.S. and the U.K., the E.U. and the U.N.
Human Rights Watch said Morsi's decree "undermined the rule of law," and the constitution was a "flawed and contradictory document" that raised "serious concerns." The head of the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights expressed concern that attempting to push the constitution through a popular referendum under such volatile circumstances "could be deeply divisive." The head of the European Parliament accused Morsi of an excessive "appetite for power" in the style of former Middle Eastern strongmen.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague called for restraint on both sides and a national dialogue.
Morsi and the Brotherhood did, however, extend their hands in a gesture of seeming reconciliation and called for a national dialogue. In the days leading up to the referendum -- days in which six people were killed in protests -- Morsi met with panels of "experts" to discuss the increasingly volatile situation. While he did eventually rescind the decree declaring him immune from judicial oversight, the Assembly did not push back the referendum, which was one of the opposition's main demands.
The opposition, for their part, suffered from habitual infighting and disorganization, severely hampering their ability to get their message out. The fragmented groups representing the Christians, the liberals, the socialists, the secularists and pretty much everyone else who didn't fall under the category of "Islamist," temporarily united under the banner of the National Salvation Front.
But, as analyst Marina Ottoway at the Carnegie Institute said, these disparate groups not only had different goals in mind for these protests, but were also led by several former presidential candidates and a bunch of "prima donnas," Ottoway said, who all wanted to be the head honcho.
"They all think they're big guys and are all trying to lead the opposition," she said. "So when you try to form a front, the question comes up who's at the head, and then they all fall apart again."
Not only was the opposition disorganized, but they were working against the Brotherhood, who are notorious for being an extremely effective and well-oiled political machine. It wasn't until just a few days before the referendum's first round on Dec. 15 that the opposition finally gave up on a boycott and told their supporters to vote "no." And when Morsi and the Brotherhood extended their hand for a dialogue on the constitution, however devious they may have been, the opposition only made the Islamists look more reasonable by flat out refusing to participate.
Now the referendum has passed, and Egypt's new constitution, with all its flaws, contradictions, and lack of religious liberty, is law. The Brotherhood and the Islamist coalition is, for now, firmly in power, and the opposition is left on the outside to organize for its next chance. What will happen to Egypt's democracy in the meantime? Will we see simply a Mubarak-like farce of an election next time, with the Brotherhood and Morsi maintaining their grip, or is there just possibly hope for true pluralism in a Muslim country?
Nathan Brown, a senior associate in the Carnegie Program's Middle East Program wrote in a blog post on Monday there might be hope, if for no other reason than the struggle over the constitution will force all parties to recalculate.
"The Brotherhood might finally realize that it can get much of what it wants through less heavy-handed methods," Brown wrote. "And the opposition might find that the electoral process offers it the greatest possibilities of success. Only if actors perceive their options differently can Egypt break free from its current crisis."
A triumvirate of "sins," Brown wrote, with the faulty political transition, a poorly implemented new system and Morsi's attempted coup, rekindled the revolutionary fire in Egyptians who felt they weren't being given a fair say.
"The game, whether or not completely unfair, still seems tilted for now in the Islamist direction," Brown wrote. But, "The opposition seems to appreciate that an unfair political game might still be worth playing as long as it offers some possibilities for change."
And as long as the opposition begins to actually act like an opposition and present clear alternatives, Brown said, there is yet hope for a true Egyptian democracy.