But as ominous as the Islamist group's name may sound to some Western ears, the several million members of the Muslim Brotherhood did not start the mass protest in Egypt on Jan. 25.
Organizers were young, mostly secular protesters, angered by years of President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule and the grinding poverty that most of the population endures. They were inspired by the Tunisian revolution that began last month.
They have reportedly made overtures to other opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei, in an effort to organize in the absence of power left by calls for the embattled Mubarak to resign.
Despite years of being suppressed by the government, Brotherhood members were allowed to run as independent candidates in the 2005 election. But after they won 20 percent of the available seats, Mubarak cracked down on them again.
After losing in a series of violent initiatives to take down the state in the 1950s and '60s, the Muslim Brotherhood, except for a small terrorist faction, has chosen to work more peacefully behind the scenes in Egypt.
But with Egypt hurtling toward the kind of anarchy that creates a dangerous vacuum, could the Muslim Brotherhood seize power in Egypt?
AOL News spoke today with Haroon Moghul, the New York City-based director of The Maydan Institute, a consulting and communications project devoted to enhancing understanding between Muslims and the West.
AOL News: What is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
Haroon Mohgul: They are the biggest opposition group, with several million members. They run huge social service programs. That's primarily the reason for their support and their strength. They have branches in other countries but in Egypt, although they participate in politics, they take the long-term view.
AOL News: What do you mean by long-term view?
Moghul: They aren't going to attack the state. Their philosophy in recent years has been: We will preach about being better Muslims and eventually the government and the people will change on their own.
AOL News: Could the Muslim Brotherhood seize power now and turn Egypt into something like the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Moghul: No. Iran screwed up. By creating a hard-line theocratic state to promote Islam, they wound up alienating the people and winding up with a pretty secular state. Until Iran, there hadn't been an Islamic republic for more than 1,000 years, so no one knew what it would be like. Groups like the Brotherhood have seen what happened in Iran and realize that's not the way to go.
AOL News: But if Mubarak flees and no one's in charge, is the Brotherhood likely to take over in some way?
Moghul: The military would not let the Brotherhood turn Egypt into an Islamist republic. The military is very popular with Egyptians. They hate the police but love the military. They think of it as their military. Egypt is not well-armed, but they have one of the biggest armies in North Africa and all of the Middle East.
AOL News: The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization. What's the difference between Islamist and Islamic?
Moghul: The simplest way to explain it is that the word Islamic means having to do with the religion. Islamist means a belief that Islam has a political role in society.
AOL News: Why is the Muslim Brotherhood banned in Egypt?
Moghul: Well, every opposition group is banned, but the Brotherhood has a particularly ugly history with the state. It began as an anti-colonial movement, then confronted the government in the 1950s and '60s and tried to destroy it. After they lost, they realized it was more prudent to work for peaceful change.
AOL News: Back in the day, wasn't the Muslim Brotherhood credited with inspiring Hamas as well as having had a notorious leader, Sayyid Qutb, who many think inspired Osama bin Laden?
Moghul: Yes, and the Brotherhood today is always going out of their way to say those are no longer our beliefs or our goals. Qutb popularized the idea that Islam was not just a belief system but also a political system. He said that any country that wasn't Islamist in essence had a government who were apostates.
AOL News: At what time was the Muslim Brotherhood most powerful?
Moghul: In a way they are now. This is when we'll see what they're made of. They've got the numbers, they've got the organization. Will they become kingmakers? It's a possibility.
Moghul: Well, Egypt currently has a peace treaty with Israel but it's a pretty cold one. Would a new Egypt be friends with Iran? With Turkey? Would it become a destabilizing force in the region? The fact that it's a possibility ought to be focusing the U.S. government's attention.
AOL News: What should foreign powers be doing now in regard to Egypt?
Moghul: The U.S. needs to help Egypt move in a good direction. You can't wait too long. If you wait too long, the hardline powers find it easier to take over. People will start to look at those who can provide order, and that's always the big, organized Islamist groups.