CAIRO - A week ahead of Egypt's first democratic election to elect a new president, the Muslim Brotherhood is facing major challenges to its bid to seek the helm of power in the most populous Arab country.
"The Brotherhood has certainly been more assertive since its victory in the elections, Alison Pargeter, an expert on the Brotherhood, told Reuters.
This has come as the movement has become more sure of itself and its support base, said Pargeter, who authored a book on the powerful group.
"However, the Brotherhood is facing many challenges, not least of which is how it will manage the internal contradictions that have hampered it more or less since its inception.
The 15 months since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak have been a historic chapter in the story of a movement that has gone from being an outlawed group to a political party courted by foreign states and vying for power.
Fears that the military rulers who replaced Mubarak might once again crack down on the group have diminished. The Brotherhood believes too much has changed in Egypt to allow any repeat of 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser drove it underground.
But while the era of dawn raids appears to be over for the Brotherhood, Egypt's post-uprising politics have brought new challenges: new Islamist rivals, a more critical public, a degree of internal dissent and the revival of an old debate about the rights and wrongs of its mix of religion and politics.
Its main Islamist rival for the presidency is Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a former member of the movement whose bid is testing the loyalty of some Brotherhood members and has drawn Islamist support away from Mursi.
The Brotherhood is hoping for the best - victory in the presidential election, but also contemplating a different outcome - defeat that could lead to being denied any meaningful say over government and going into opposition.
At the Brotherhood's headquarters, one of its most influential voices described a bittersweet period for a movement elected to parliament but blocked by the generals from having any say in government.
Mahmoud Ezzat, the Brotherhood's deputy leader, said that was a prime reason for its entry into the presidential race - a controversial decision that was taken as recently as March and reversed a previous pledge not to contest the position.
"This was not just a right, but an obligation," Ezzat told Reuters.
Ezzat envisages the presidential election as the start of an eight-year struggle with the military establishment that will do all it can to preserve an economic empire including factories, land holdings and petrol stations.
A Brotherhood president, he said, would be best qualified to withstand the pressure and undertake the reform needed to foster a democratic system and revive Egypt's economic fortunes - goals at the heart of the "renaissance with an Islamic foundation" outlined by the Brotherhood's manifesto.
"Even if the president comes from the Brotherhood, the military council will continue to cling to power, but its chances will be lower," he said.
Were the Brotherhood to fail in its presidential bid, Ezzat said the group could be frozen out of government - an unusually candid assessment and one that runs contrary to more upbeat assessments from other figures in the group.
"I think they will offer some ministries which in their view will not have influence on deciding the general policies of state. We will say to them: 'Ok, fine, we will go into opposition,'" he said, casting his eye down the road to local elections later this year as the next opportunity for the group boost its representation.
In his mid-60s, Ezzat is a Brotherhood veteran who was first jailed in the Nasser era. He carries the same rank as Khairat al-Shater, the man who was the Brotherhood's first-choice candidate for the presidency but was disqualified because of a criminal conviction he received during Mubarak's rule.
Ezzat has spent less time in the public eye than other Brotherhood leaders and has been cast as the group's "iron man" by local media: a figure who has come to personify the Brotherhood's reputation for tough internal discipline and top-down decision making.
Ezzat dismisses that moniker as the invention of an ill-informed and hostile media. The Brotherhood has only been able to succeed by convincing its followers of its ideas, not ordering them around, he said.Yet the label points to the broader image problem facing the Brotherhood, which has lost a degree of the support it once enjoyed in the rough and tumble of Egypt's new politics.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net