Freedom has finally arrived in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood is possibly the biggest beneficiary among the country¿s political parties.
Freedom carries price for Brotherhood
CAIRO // Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood had long used secrecy to shield itself from public scrutiny, laying down strategies and patching up differences within its ranks behind tightly closed doors.
It was a must-do for an organisation outlawed in 1954 and persecuted for most of the years since.
The Islamist group now has its own party, and its leaders spend almost as much time talking on prime-time TV talk shows, including on the state channel, as they prepare for parliamentary elections they expect to dominate when Egyptians go to the ballots in November.
Freedom has finally arrived in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood is possibly the biggest beneficiary among the country's political parties.
But with that freedom, the Brotherhood now realises, comes a price.
Factions and leaders have broken away from the Brotherhood, forming their own political parties and, in the process, criticising the group as antiquated, patriarchal and unable to cope with renewal.
It has been a major embarrassment for the Brotherhood at a time when it was seeking to persuade sceptics in Egypt, particularly secularists and minority Christians, that they had nothing to fear if they came to dominate the next parliament.
The Brotherhood says it will contest half of parliament's seats but it will not field a candidate in presidential elections due late this year or early the next one. However, many in Egypt fear that a likely alliance between the Brotherhood, the ultraconservative Salafis and other Islamist groups could produce a majority in the next legislature.
The Brotherhood's best electoral result came in 2005 when they won 20 per cent of all seats. But the group failed to win a single seat in parliamentary elections heavily marred by fraud late last year.
The Brotherhood has been contesting elections since the early 1980s, skirting a ban on participating in politics by fielding ostensibly independent candidates.
But if more factions and leaders break away, the likelihood of the Brotherhood making good on its predictions that it would win about a third of all seats could be in doubt.
The group has significantly hurt its image by the militant rhetoric of some of its leaders who boasted that they intend to turn Egypt into a purist Islamic state if they came to power.
The Brotherhood has sought to play down such comments, arguing that they have been taken out of context or accusing the media of trying to discredit the group.
There have also been persistent charges that the Brotherhood intentionally stayed away from the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime, allowing supporters to take part in the protests only after it became certain that the movement gained irreversible momentum.
The Brotherhood's image has been further damaged by accusations that they took advantage of the religious piety of most Egyptians by portraying a "no" vote to constitutional amendments put to a nationwide vote in March as a vote against Islam and in favour of Christians.
Egyptians, in their first free vote in living memory, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the amendments, a move that would allow the Brotherhood to put to good use decades of meticulous organisation when competing against infant parties born out of the January-February uprising or traditional parties long co-opted by Mr Mubarak's regime and lacking genuine popular support.
The Brotherhood's attempts to forge an electoral alliance with liberal and leftist parties have failed to make any headway, with several of these groups chafing at what they see as a ploy by the Brotherhood to spread its appeal beyond its traditional support base.
Internally, the group has threatened to fire any of its supporters if they decide to join a political party other than its own Freedom and Justice Party.
In some cases, it made scathing attacks on those who left its ranks to join others.
The group's tough handling of deserters exposed it as a rigid organisation and cast doubt on its repeated promises for equal treatment of the country's minority Christians and a fair deal for women.
Significantly, first to publicly part company with the Brotherhood was one of its most widely accepted leaders outside the group.
Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fottouh has announced plans to run for president, violating the Brotherhood's decision not to field candidates. Mr Abul-Fottouh, who has been expelled for breaking the group's rules, represents the most moderate face of the Brotherhood.
In many of his writings, for example, he has interpreted the veil not as Islamic dress code but rather a traditional dress like the Indian sari, more of a national identity than a religious obligation.
He also supports the rights of atheists.
The latest desertion came when several Brotherhood members, led by a senior group figure, broke off to form a new political party. Led by members of the Brotherhood's so-called "reformist" camp, they formed a party called Al Riyada, or The Pioneers.
Khaled Dawoud, the senior deserting member, said the new party views Islam as the foundation of Egyptian culture, but not its politics.
"The culture of Egypt is Islamic," he said.
He also criticised the Brotherhood for not separating between the group's mission as an Islamic preaching organisation and its political party. He also criticised the "undemocratic practices" within the group.
Another high profile break-off came in June when about 20 young Brotherhood members formed the Egyptian Trend.
Its founder, Islam Lotfy, said it was not a Brotherhood party, or a party of the Brotherhood youth, explaining that he saw no contradiction between being a member of the Brotherhood as an advocacy group and joining a new political party.