Jackson Diehl
Deputy editorial page editor December 2, 2011

Sitting comfortably in the lobby of a Western-owned hotel in Cairo, Nabil Naim recounts his history as a leader of Egypt’s al-Jihad organization, which assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, waged a terrorist war in the 1990s and helped give birth to al-Qaeda. He was, he says, the personal bodyguard of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was “the right arm” of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former al-Jihad leader who now heads al-Qaeda.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. View Archive

“I am the one who sent Mohamed Atta to Afghanistan,” Naim says proudly of the lead pilot of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And yet here he sits: He was released from prison in March, just weeks after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, who had kept him locked up for 20 years. It’s astonishing that such a man now walks free in the streets of Cairo, along with hundreds of other Islamic militants recently paroled from Mubarak’s prisons.

But Naim is not as scary as he sounds. Al-Jihad abandoned violence in Egypt years ago; “We were exhausted,” he says, and at 53, he looks it. The former terrorist concedes that this country is headed toward Western-style democracy: “It’s the only available option.”

My conversation with him and several other Islamist political leaders this week pointed to the risks of Egypt’s ongoing democratic revolution — but also to the reasons that the ascendancy of parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood should not be as alarming as many in the West suppose. An Egypt dominated by these groups would be a difficult partner for the West and a menace to secular Egyptians. But the challenge would more closely resemble that of Turkey’s democratically elected Islamist government than that of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The biggest reason for this is that the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the more fundamentalist parties to its right, have renounced violence. Apart from a few militants embedded in Bedouin tribes of the Sinai Peninsula, there are no armed Islamists in Egypt. Senior Brotherhood spokesmen such as Essam al-Erian, who met with me after this week’s first round of parliamentary elections gave his movement more than 40 percent of the vote, have been repeating for years that the group favors, as he put it, “alternation of power through regular elections.”

There is plenty in the platform of the Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party that secular Egyptians and Westerners will find troubling. While favoring a free-market economy, it calls for limiting foreign funding to civil society groups and media, criminalizing adultery and abolishing the National Council for Women, “which acted as an intelligence arm of the international players in Egypt.”

Although Brotherhood spokesmen have said they would preserve Egypt’s peace with Israel, the platform says that Egypt should “aid and support the Palestinian people and Palestinian resistance against the Zionist usurpers of their homeland” — the language of Hamas. The more fundamentalist parties known collectively as salafists, which appear to have won more than 20 percent of the vote in the election’s first round, are considerably more militant, both about Israel and domestic social policy.

Erian responded assertively when I asked him to address the fears of Americans about a possible government including the Brotherhood. “I hope American elites and intellectuals will understand what is happening,” he said. “This is a big change. This is a new beginning for this region, and a new role for this region in the international community. The wheel of history is turning, and no one can turn it back.”

But most of the Brotherhood’s rhetoric and political tactics so far have been conciliatory. Freedom and Justice included several small secular parties in its electoral coalition; any new government, says Erian, will be “formed by a national consensus.” So far the party has distanced itself from the salafists.

In fact, an early test of the Justice and Freedom Party will be where it looks for allies when the new parliament convenes in March. Will it reach out to the main liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc? That may sway the intense debate among Cairo’s secular elite about whether the Islamists should be treated as a menace or given a chance to perform in a democracy.

Some have aleady made up their minds and are encouraging the military to impose basic principles of the new constitution, including a bill of rights. That would perpetuate the political logic that has helped keep the generals in power for decades: that they are the only bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. The perverse result has been to keep the liberals weak while the military and Islamists jostle and negotiate.

It’s hard to argue with one of Egypt’s foremost secular dissidents, lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, when he argues that it’s time to try something different. “The danger in Egypt is not the ghost of Islam,” he told me. “It is a military state.”

“I can accept a parliament elected by the people in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafists have the majority, rather than have the [supreme military council] continue to run the country,” Hamad said. “At least these people were elected by the masses — and the masses can change their minds.”

diehlj@washpost.com