CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the biggest winner in parliamentary elections, but the fundamentalist group that has long dreamed of ruling Egypt is likely to be cautious about flexing its newfound muscle.
The Brotherhood has been crushed by the military before and will likely tread carefully to avoid spooking the ruling generals or the country's Western supporters, who provide generous amounts of badly needed foreign aid.
That may be the best tactic for the Brotherhood as it seeks to translate its impressive electoral victory into political power while reassuring this turbulent nation of 85 million people that it has no intention of monopolizing power.
So far, the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, is insisting it has no immediate desire to push through Islamic legislation or form a new government to replace one led by a prime minister named by the military only days before the staggered elections began on Nov. 28.
Additionally, it has distanced itself from more militant Islamic groups, including the ultraconservative Salafis, who won a quarter of seats, and has gone to great lengths to avoid a clash with the powerful generals who took over from Hosni Mubarak 11 months ago.
"The cautious approach is rooted in part in the lessons the Muslim Brotherhood has learned from past clashes with the army, for which it paid dearly," columnist Abdullah al-Sinawi wrote in Monday's edition of the independent Al-Shorouk daily.
The Brotherhood has spent most of the 84 years since its inception in 1928 as an outlawed organization. At times, it enjoyed a level of relative tolerance by authorities that allowed it to function as a religious charity and political body, running a huge network of social services and fielding parliamentary candidates as independents.
But for most of those eight decades, Brotherhood leaders and supporters have been targeted in harsh government crackdowns that saw hundreds jailed, tortured and convicted, often on drummed up charges.
The Feb. 11 ouster of Mubarak heralded the empowerment of the Brotherhood. The group responded with astonishing speed, quickly organizing its ranks to contest the elections and emerging as the nation's most dominant political force. Its Freedom and Justice party is now the largest bloc in the next legislature, though final results of the staggered election have yet to be announced.
The Brotherhood's show of flexibility is typical of an organization that has honed to perfection survival tactics developed during decades of functioning underground to escape crackdowns by successive governments. It also emanates from the series of setbacks it has suffered over the years whenever it flaunted its power.
For example, Brotherhood leaders forged close ties with the army officers who seized power in a 1952 coup, acting as their political and spiritual patrons until the same officers cracked down on the group two years later.
The group enjoyed something of a revival during the 11-year rule of President Anwar Sadat, who used it to counter the weight of militant Islamic groups. Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat in 1981, initially tolerated the group, but subjected it to wave after wave of arrests starting in the 1990s on the grounds that it offered militant groups tacit support.
Some in Egypt, however, believe the Brotherhood's desire for power is what may prove its undoing.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has a rich history of failures," cautioned Amir al-Mallah, a leader of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak. "It is not after the creation of a civilian or a religious state — all it ever wanted is power."
The Brotherhood did not take a leadership role in the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak to step down, only joining the uprising when it felt confident the protest movement had gained irreversible momentum. Its supporters also stayed away from recent protests demanding the military immediately step down, arguing that it was time to focus on the political process and not demonstrations.
"We have acted out of concern that we should work to rebuild the nation and not destroy what is left of it," Brotherhood leader Subhi Saleh told The Associated Press.
The rise of the Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt has become a serious source of concern to liberal and left-leaning groups, as well as women and the nation's large Christian minority, all of whom fear the group's long-term goal of implementing Islamic Sharia law will relegate them to the sidelines and stoke sectarian tensions.
While it has repeatedly stated its desire to maintain Egypt's close relations with the United States, the Brotherhood has sent conflicting signals on Israel, with whom Egypt has a 1979 peace treaty. Brotherhood leaders have said they will put the treaty to a nationwide referendum and have pledged to never recognize the Jewish state.
However, the Freedom and Justice party has said it will respect the nation's international commitments, a reference to the treaty.
"No not at all," said Saleh when asked whether the party intended to push legislation to bring the mainly Muslim nation more in line with Islamic teachings. "Our priority is economic and political reform."
Many of the Brotherhood's detractors see such assurances as a smoke screen to conceal the Brotherhood's Islamic agenda and calm nerves at home and abroad about whether it intends to put into practice its longtime slogan of "Islam is the solution."
The Freedom and Justice party's political manifesto, posted on the group's website, does not speak of the prohibition of alcohol and the segregation of the sexes, but there is enough there to suggest it may just be a matter of time.
The section devoted to the media, art and culture says the party will work for "clean film production" along with television programs sensitive to "the needs, values and customs of Egyptian citizens." It also says it will create a network of Internet sites that "bolsters constructive culture, and the social and religious values of Arab and Islamic societies."
Going on the defensive, Saad el-Katatni, the party's secretary general, said fear of the Islamists was "exaggerated" and amounted to scare mongering.
"The people have spoken. If you respect democracy then you must respect the new political map," he told reporters in comments carried by the official news agency, MENA.
Subhi and Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghazlan emphatically deny the Brotherhood has struck a deal with the generals. Both argue that, like all other political groups, the Brotherhood just wants the generals to make good on their promise to step down.
Activists and antimilitary protest leaders, however, say the Brotherhood has promised a safe exit for the generals when they leave power, protecting them against prosecution for killing protesters. That, say the activists, would be in return for giving the Brotherhood-dominated legislature a mandate to appoint a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution.
Writing in the Monday edition of the independent al-Tahrir newspaper, columnist Ibrahim Issa summed up the predicament of the Brotherhood — winning Egypt's freest and fairest election only to be reluctant to realize its longtime dream of ruling the country.
"The Brotherhood waited for 84 years for this moment: to rule Egypt," he wrote. "But when the moment has finally arrived, the Brotherhood seems to believe in the saying that one must be careful what one wishes for."