Get Egypt: Vague, vaguer, vaguest

Events in Egypt roll on and, of course, journalists and diplomats are all trying to figure out what is up with the Muslim Brotherhood and it's potential role in the new secular or Islamic state of Egypt. In other words, will a democratic process lead to an Islamic republic? Thus, we have the following story in the Washington Post, which ran under the headline, "Muslim Brotherhood eyes comeback in Egypt." Let's start at the beginning and walk through parts of this piece in sequence.

Hint: Look for labels, not information.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT -- Hamdi Hassan, a senior member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood party, was jailed by Egyptian authorities Jan. 28 during the tensest days of anti-government protests in this coastal city.

But Hassan walked out of jail two days later after protesters commandeered the facility and freed all the inmates. By this weekend, the 51-year-old physician sounded exultant as he held court in a main square, mobbed by his supporters in what has long been a Brotherhood stronghold.

"This is a defining and historic moment because Egyptians from all walks of life are finally free," Hassan said. He made clear that he had no fear of being arrested again, even as charred police vehicles in the background offered evidence of the turmoil that spread from Cairo to Alexandria at the height of the violence.

Hassan's own turnabout reflects a reversal that has left the Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic party, poised for the first time to claim a real stake in Egyptian politics in whatever follows three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.

OK, so we have the dreaded f-word used again in a context in which it is, historically speaking, meaningless.

Sadly, the rest of the Post article will be based on this meaningless, vague f-word as a starting point, defining other Egyptians in relationship to the Brotherhood. In reality, we have been told nothing about the Brotherhood and what it believes about the crucial issues facing this diverse land and its cultures (plural).

So, all together now, let's chant the relevant passage from the Associated Press Stylebook:

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

Do leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood use this term from American Protestantism to describe their group and its work? I would assume that the answer is "no."

Moving on.

Officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood has long been the target of vicious government crackdowns. But as the oldest, largest and best-organized group in Egypt, the Brotherhood could conceivably become the largest bloc in parliament whenever new elections are held.

Though it was not a driving force behind the demonstrations that began Jan. 25 and grew into a popular uprising, the Brotherhood has wasted no time setting the groundwork for a political resurgence. Its leaders have now claimed their place among those who met Sunday with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, to discuss constitutional reforms and a transition plan.

The development has left some of the more liberal, secular protesters visibly unnerved.

So, what are the policy ideas that drive the "liberal, secular" protesters? Also, does the word "secular" mean that these protesters are not Muslims or are we dealing with the uniquely "secular" approach used in, oh, Turkey?

Most of all, what is the information that we need to know about these liberals and secularists to understand their take on Egypt's future? Could we pick one issue and compare these labeled people? How about free speech? Religious liberty? Should Egypt have a blasphemy law?

Moving on.

Some members of the Brotherhood have long aspired to transform Egypt into an Islamic state. But the message that Hassan was delivering Sunday was more moderate, reflecting the group's vow to cooperate with secular and more-moderate Islamic politicians when Mubarak's regime ends.

"One of our demands is free and fair elections that really demonstrate the will of the Egyptian people," Hassan said.

There are members of the Brotherhood who do not want Egypt to be an Islamic state? Tell us more. Now that is news. Meanwhile, what is the best guess -- based on history and polling -- of the meaning of the phrase "the will of the Egyptian people"?

Moving on.

Just how much power the Brotherhood could attain has been on the minds of U.S. officials in recent days as they have calibrated their policy on transition in Egypt. Israeli leaders and analysts have warned that the Brotherhood could hijack the reformist agenda and emerge as a major force that could seek to undermine the long peace between Egypt and Israel.

Now we have "reformist." Might we know what elements of Egyptian society need to be reformed? Surely the protesters have some ideas.

Meanwhile, I should not that mentioning the fragile peace between Egypt and Israel is a practical detail. Bravo.

Looking ahead, surely there will be some additional facts in the article's background materials on the Brotherhood. You think?

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 to promote Islamic values. It became politically influential in Egypt the following decade as it sought to end British colonial rule. Since Egypt's independence in 1948, a succession of Egyptian rulers have outlawed and suppressed the group.

Mubarak's government banned it as a party but allowed its members to run for office as independents. When leaders in the West prodded Mubarak to allow greater democratic freedoms, he repeatedly warned that doing so would only empower the likes of the Brotherhood.

Then again, maybe not.

What, pray tell, are "Islamic values"? Is the goal here to avoid mentioning a single specific issue of any kind?

Anyway, you get the idea. Did I miss something specific in the article that tells readers what any of these vague labels actually mean?

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