CAIRO — From the outside, the building that houses the Cairo office of the Muslim Brotherhood looks abandoned. But this is the headquarters of the granddaddy of all Islamic political groups. Inside the building, behind an unmarked door, men in the dilapidated rooms heed the call to midday prayers and kneel, murmuring their devotions.
"Islamic principles can be introduced slowly. If an Islamic party comes to power, it will need to be in power for many years - more than 20 years - to apply the Islamic principles," says Mohamed el-Maamoun el-Hodaiby. "It's a matter of belief. We can't force people to believe in what they don't believe in."
Mr. Hodaiby is a former president of the Cairo High Court and the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general. And it is exactly Mr. Hodaiby's moderate views and patient attitude that cast him and the Brotherhood into a netherworld of today's highly polarized Egyptian politics.
The government officially banned the Brotherhood in 1954. But the avowedly nonviolent organization has long been tolerated and even become a moderate fixture in Egyptian politics.
But today, more extremist Islamic groups are stealing its thunder. Since its founding in 1928, the Brotherhood has failed to gain power. And in that failure, the more extreme Islamists see a chance to gain political power by using violent confrontation and extreme anti-Western and anti-Israeli views. Their focus has become power rather than the promotion of religious ideals. And it's a pattern that is being replicated in many North African states.
"There are real ideological and theoretical differences between different Islamic directions, and their radicalism always makes them more influential," says Adel Hussein, who leads the Egyptian Labor Party, an Islamist-inspired party despite its name.
The most prominent of such radical, antigovernment extremist groups is Gama'a al-Islamiya. Its spiritual guide is the blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abel Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence in the United States for his role in planning the bombing of New York's World Trade Center.
The group's leader, Mustafa Hamza, controls the group's military operations in Egypt from a base in the Afghanistan province of Konarha, which is held by the Afghan Taliban Islamic movement. From there he directs attacks such as the one in April, when extremists killed 17 Greek tourists in Cairo, mistaking them for Israelis.
But such acts are meant to antagonize the Egyptian government more than the Western countries whose citizens are often targets. "The rise of Islamist movements has been directed less against foreign domination than against the indigenous, albeit post-colonial, state that has failed to resolve the problems of the society it rules and has exhausted its political credit," according to Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
In fact, the Western public often interprets such acts as based on a religious hatred of the West or Israel. But the aim may be more more to embarass the national government and chip away at its power. "Religion is useful" in the quest for political power, says Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a Cairo commentator.
Similarly, explanation for the anti-French sentiment in algeria, seen in last year's bombing campaign in France by the Armed Islamic Group, is to be found in politics rather than religion.
"The Islamists in algeria are essentially the adversaries of the algerian Francophones," says Yves Lacoste, a leading French writer on North Africa. "The current conflict within algeria is between the Islamists and those who are viewed as supported by France - the algerian Army, the intelligensia, and the professionals."
Outside Sudan and Iran, where Islamic regimes have come to power, moderate Islamists have either been exiled or silenced. And on all fronts they have been overshadowed by extremists, who no longer heed their call for peaceful reform. Meanwhile, the failure of governments to strengthen traditional Islamic moderates, who enjoy huge support among Muslims, has further isolated regimes from their people and strengthened the radicals.
But in such a polarized climate, it may be the patience exhibited by the Brotherhood's Hodaiby that ultimately wins out.
A man with similar patience is Rached Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of Tunisia's banned and fragmented Al-Nahda Islamic movement.
"The only way left now is strikes and demonstrations or using violence," he says from exile in London. "But we are against violence. The Tunisian government has no ideology, and as long as there's a vacuum, Al-Nahda will always be there."
Biding his time, he hopes one day to return, like Ayatollah Khomeini, to the country from which he fled seven years ago.