Gamal Banna sits surrounded by his library of 16,000 volumes at his foundation… (Cris Bouroncle, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Cairo — Wrapped in a shawl on a cold morning, Gamal Banna shuffled over a dusty carpet amid fraying books on old civilizations. He knows well the intricacies of Arab history, but is far less certain where the upheavals of the last year will lead.
Like the balustrade winding to his library door, the known ways are crumbling. Moments of wonder are giving way to months of bewilderment. These days, he said, are likely to prove as seminal as those after World War I, when Western powers drew the borders that shaped the Middle East for nearly a century. Islamists, who have endured decades of oppression, appear to have their chance to redefine the region's politics.
"One era has ended," said Banna, one of Islam's leading liberal thinkers. "But of the new era, we don't know exactly what is taking shape."
Lacking an ideology and charismatic leaders to channel the aspirations of the street, the "Arab Spring" has been thwarted by more powerful forces and fallen short of complete revolution. The challenge for Islamists, Banna said, is tempering their religious fervor with a pragmatism that can fix their countries before anger and despair is turned against them.
Banna is intimate with the Islamists' strengths and failings. His older brother, Hassan, who was a schoolteacher, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The younger Banna has often angered the group with his progressive interpretation of Islam. He has watched his brother's conservative vision evolve in the decades since his death in 1949. Grass-roots activism gave way to periods of radicalism and today's often ill-defined mix of politics and social consciousness.
The 91-year-old scholar moves gingerly, but his wit and intellectual rigor seldom rest. He has written scores of books and appears on talk shows, eyes fixed and words hard against the ultraconservatives. His face is barely wrinkled. He runs a website and carries the title president of the Revival Islamist Movement. His desk is stacked high with documents, and sometimes he appears not to be there, until one hears the rustle of papers, the creak of a chair.
Only in Tunisia, he said, where a fruit seller set himself on fire a year ago and uncapped the passions of an entire region, is there a glimmer of a nation achieving its revolutionary ideals.
Here in Egypt, the army rules. It has killed protesters and stifled civil liberties even as the nation votes for a new parliament. Security forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad gun down protesters daily. Yemen is beset by warring tribes, Al Qaeda militants and deadly political intrigue. Bahrain is an island of royal repression and rifle shots in the night. Moammar Kadafi met a brutal, surreal demise, but Libya is torn by clan animosities and militias.
Banna looked into the streaked morning light in his window. "The revolution," he said, "has lost its freedom."
The rebellions against autocrats started with popular uprisings. But in Egypt and other countries, they never found a consistent political voice, nor a comprehensive set of demands. Young activists and Facebook rebels were not enduring or enticing enough to seize the moment. They still take to city squares, but the race for power has moved beyond them.
"The heir of these revolutions is political Islam," said Banna. "The Islamists' parties are the big winners. The Islamists are established figures in this time of tumult. They have credibility and people are willing to give them a chance. But they must move quickly to fix years of social and economic neglect. If not, they could lose this opportunity and it all might collapse."
The Brotherhood has won more than 40% of the vote in Egypt's ongoing parliamentary elections. Its ultraconservative Islamist rivals, the Salafis, have won more than 20%.
Tunisia's Islamic Nahda party, a moderate faction that appears more politically astute than the Brotherhood or the Salafis, is dominating in that country. Islamists are also prevalent in Libya and Yemen, and a version of the Muslim Brotherhood could be a powerful player if Assad is overthrown and Syria descends into sectarian conflict.
Washington and its allies fear that Islamists will upset a regional balance of power in place since the 1970s. U.S. influence in the region will probably diminish; Egyptian Islamists have hinted about rethinking their country's peace treaty with Israel.
The struggle between moderate and ultraconservative Islam over religion's role in public life will play out for years. There are already debates over banning alcohol and bikinis at Egyptian resorts.
But the rising leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries face more pressing problems. Egypt, perhaps the region's most influential nation, is beset by inflation, unemployment and deep poverty left by decades of government corruption. Many Arabs are more concerned these days with jobs, opportunities and tourist dollars than with how thoroughly Islamic law will influence national constitutions.