Hannah Allam

CAIRO: Almost a year ago, senior leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood gathered in an apartment overlooking the massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It was the 18th day of the uprising that would bring down President Hosni Mubarak.

The elder statesmen of the long-outlawed Islamist group scanned the crowds below, making sure that their young activists weren’t using religious chants or banners; they’d issued strict orders not to make the revolution seem Islamist in nature.

Satisfied, the leaders prayed together at sundown that Feb. 11, then they turned on the TV to see the vice president announcing that Mubarak had resigned after 30 years in power.

“That was the moment,” recalled Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s governing council, closing his eyes to savor the memory.

As ecstatic protesters celebrated below, the men in the apartment instantly realized that, with Mubarak gone, the Muslim Brotherhood’s decades of persecution were over, and the group finally had a clear path to political power. They sprang into action, using their long-standing service networks to protect neighborhoods, provide discounted food, form a political party and, ultimately, win nearly half the seats in a parliament that will convene Monday for the first time.

In the year since the wave of revolts that brought down three Middle Eastern rulers and left two others tottering began, the ascension of the Islamists has emerged as the dominant narrative.

The United States and other Western powers — along with Arab liberals and religious minorities — are watching with alarm as conservative Muslim politicians have filled the power vacuums left by the rebellions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. They fear that Taliban-style religious extremism will replace the old order’s secular autocracy; of particular concern are the future of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and the possible creation of havens for al Qaida-linked militants in Libya.

Islamists doing good work

Supporters of the Islamists say the extremist threat is exaggerated and that no other political force is as trusted, disciplined or efficient to guide these scarred nations toward democracy. They note that across North Africa, Islamists are forging alliances with political rivals, meeting with Western envoys, courting foreign investors and spending millions of dollars on sophisticated electoral campaigns.

“At some point, something happens to blow the lid off tyranny, and that’s what we saw this past year with these revolutions,” said Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood official. “Islamists are the new reality for this region, and the West must recognize that and engage in dialogue.”

Already, American diplomats in Cairo have reversed an old policy against direct talks with the Muslim Brotherhood and now meet with the group’s top leaders, a sign that Washington finally acknowledges the Islamist group’s influence in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

While the extent of Islamist involvement in the Syrian revolt is unknown, the exiled leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood voice fervent support for the uprising.

Role of religion very strong

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood may have taken pains to prevent the uprising from appearing Islamist-influenced, but there’s no question about the role of religion in the aftermath. Millions of Egyptian voters bought into the Muslim Brotherhood’s key slogan, “Islam is the solution,” devastating liberal activists, who’d advocated a more secular democratic model.

Final results on Saturday showed Islamist parties won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliament in Egypt’s first elections since Mubarak’s ouster, according to election officials and political groups.

So far, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other mainstream Islamists throughout the region have offered assurances to their many critics, treading carefully so as not to squander their newfound authority and freedom.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.