As the edifice of Hosni Mubarak's regime crumbled in Egypt, dire talk began to circulate in the West about the Muslim Brotherhood. Glenn Beck said the Brotherhood wanted to declare war on Israel. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the group "a mortal enemy of our civilization."
On Tuesday, the "mortal enemy" announced plans to form a political party, something it was not allowed to do under Mubarak.
Ignorance creates room for fear, and concerning the Muslim Brotherhood there is plenty of both to go around.
Not that a Muslim Brotherhood with official standing would necessarily be good for Egypt - or that its elevation would have a benign effect, for example, on Egyptian-Israeli relations. But the Brotherhood has an opportunity just now to reinvent itself, along with Egypt as a whole. There is little sense in pushing it into an extremist corner.
I met some of the current leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood five years ago as an International Reporting Project fellow in Egypt. They welcomed my colleagues and me into a shabby suite of offices in Cairo and laid out a case for a more evenhanded U.S. policy.
"Are you accepting of the results of democracy, or not?" asked Essam el-Erian, then a spokesman for the organization and today a member of its governing council. "I think the Americans and all dictators in this region are afraid of popular sentiment. ... Frankly, they are afraid of democracy."
Like other devout Muslim men in Egypt, El-Erian wears a vivid prayer callus on his forehead. He struck a reasonable tone as he invited his visitors to grapple with the inconsistencies of U.S. policy. In 2006, Exhibit A among those inconsistencies was American treatment of Hamas, the militant Muslim group that had won elections in the Palestinian territories. The United States and its allies responded by suspending foreign aid.
In other words, the United States seemed to favor democracy only if the democracy produced results to its liking. "If you are genuinely democratic, you must start by accepting others," El-Erian said.
The Brotherhood insists it does not intend to field a candidate for president of Egypt, or even try to win a majority of seats in the Parliament. But it has been outside the mainstream political environment for decades; there's no telling what it can achieve through the ballot box. Candidates linked to the Brotherhood have scored surprising successes, thanks in part to the organization's practice of offering neighborhood-level services like medical clinics. Where the government failed to provide, the Muslim Brotherhood stepped in -- an effective way of building support at the grassroots.
Unfortunately, another way of building support may be to stand up to the United States. Although Arab opinion has improved since President Obama took office, distrust was running deep as recently as 2008. A poll that summer found that only 16 percent of Egyptians believed the American version of what happened on 9/11. Well over half thought the terrorist attacks were the work of either Israel or the United States itself.
As his luck ran out, even Mubarak played the anti-American card to try to buttress his support among Egyptians. It didn't work - but by then, nothing would have worked.
The Muslim Brotherhood signaled yesterday that it intends to play an above-ground role in a new Egyptian democracy. No surprise there. The question the Brotherhood is sure to be asking now is whether the United States will support a democracy that doesn't always give us our own way.
Eric Ringham is commentary editor for MPR News. At the time of his fellowship he was commentary editor of the Star Tribune.