IT HAS been called a sleeping giant, a vast, secretive organisation that has been forced to live and work underground for most of the past 84 years. But since the fall of Hosni Mubarak's brutal 30-year rule last February, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a powerful force in Egyptian politics.
Its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party was this week confirmed as winning 47 per cent of the vote in lower house elections. Raising alarm in the West and suspicion from liberal, secular and Coptic Egyptians, the Brotherhood's dominance in Egypt's new parliament (in which women's representation has dropped from 12 to 2 per cent), coupled with a strong showing from the ultra-conservative Salafist bloc, has changed the face of Egyptian politics overnight.
Cautious and disciplined, the movement that was formed in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna aimed to regain some ''dignity and status'' for Egyptians who were repressed by British rule. It has since spawned hundreds of other Islamic movements, branches and affiliates in about 70 countries across the Arab and Muslim world.
The Brotherhood's original mission was to Islamise society through promotion of Islamic law, values and morals, the Council on Foreign Relations says, combining religion, political activism and social welfare. Its slogans have included ''Islam is the solution'' and ''Jihad [struggle] is our way''.
But getting beyond the vague religious doctrines and ancient mission statements, and into the specifics of what the Brotherhood is about - how it is financed, who its members are, how its decisions are made - is, for now, all but impossible.
In his office in the elaborately decorated new Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the Cairo neighbourhood of Muqattam - all heavy velvet drapes, marble-topped tables and gold leaf trim - the movement's chief spokesman, Dr Mahmoud Ghozlan, has little to say about financial matters.
''We don't give the numbers,'' he says matter-of-factly. ''In the Mubarak era it was very dangerous to give numbers or lists of members because it was very easy to arrest these people. Maybe after a while we will announce all of these things.''
He says the group has hundreds of thousands of members in Egypt, all required to pay 7-10 per cent of their salaries to the movement. The wealthy businessmen on their books pay much more. It is as much detail as we will get.
Ghozlan acknowledges the country faces enormous challenges. ''The previous regime left huge, complicated problems for Egypt in all aspects of life. Egypt now needs two processes, first to purify itself from the remnants of the ex-regime, and the second to rebuild the country.''
Yet it is difficult to see how Egypt can tackle its most entrenched problems - high unemployment, dwindling foreign reserves, poor international investment, corruption and a population desperate for a better life - when its major political movement cannot speak openly about its own organisation.
Keeping its secrets, it seems, is one skill in which the Brotherhood has been forced to excel.
''The Brotherhood was founded as a legal organisation back in the late 1920s, but it lost its legal status - essentially it was banned as an organisation in the late 1940s,'' says Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''That means that for over half a century it has … continued to operate, but it has done so essentially off the books and sometimes underground.''
Over the past two decades it has been ''loosely tolerated by the Mubarak regime'', he says, with periodic crackdowns. ''So what that means is that questions about the movement's finances, about the number of its members, certainly the identity of its members, some of its internal decision-making structures, all those are considered by the Brotherhood 'off limits' to people from outside the organisation.''
When Mubarak fell on February 11, the Brotherhood was finally able to step out from the shadows of 80 years of opposition and into the political arena.
''There can be no question that genuine democracy must prevail,'' one of its spokesmen, Mohammad Mursi, wrote in The Guardian as Mubarak's regime teetered on the edge of collapse. ''While the Muslim Brotherhood is unequivocal regarding its basis in Islamic thought, it rejects any attempt to enforce any ideological line upon the Egyptian people.''
Six months ago, it formed a legally recognised political party - the Freedom and Justice Party, whose secretary-general, Mohamed Saad al-Katatni, has been elected as the speaker of parliament - and it now faces a very different political environment.
''Suddenly they are going to operate in a system which is much more open, and where answering the question 'Who's funding you?' [with] 'It's none of your business' doesn't wash any more. The Brotherhood will clearly have to make adjustments to the new environment, but the leaders of the old organisation were still very much schooled in the old ways of secrecy and handling internal matters very, very far from external scrutiny,'' Brown says.
Khairat al-Shater, a multi-millionaire Egyptian businessman whose financial interests span electronics, manufacturing and retail, is known as the Brotherhood's money man. Like much of the movement, he is a devotee of a free market economy and a strong advocate of privatisation and attracting new foreign investment to Egypt. He is believed to be one of a handful of businessmen who helped to finance the Freedom and Justice Party's decisive electoral victory and is now tasked with helping to craft the party's economic policies.
Al-Shater was accused by the Mubarak regime of being the above-ground, legitimate financial arm of the Brotherhood when it was not a legally recognised organisation, says Nathan Brown. ''The regime said he was putting in his own name on Muslim Brotherhood financial concerns - he, of course, denies this.''
But, Brown notes, as the Brotherhood gradually moves its operations above ground, it will no longer have ''to resort to legal subterfuge and, as a result, we might get a slightly better sense of their finances''.
''There are certainly very deep suspicions of the Brotherhood on all different kinds of grounds, including the financial ones,'' he says.
Could the secrecy surrounding political donations and the potential influence of those donations corrupt what is recognised, to date, as a relatively clean movement?
''I don't think so. There are certainly some very wealthy businessmen who support the movement but … up to now their Brotherhood associations have cost them rather than rewarded them.''
Brown says there has always been talk of foreign funding for the Brotherhood - mostly from the Gulf states - although there has been little conclusive evidence of its scale. ''In the 1950s, when the Brotherhood was crushed in Egypt, a lot of its leaders went abroad and a lot went to the Gulf, so my sense is it is Egyptians who got wealthy working in the Arabian peninsula who are making the donations.''
Despite renouncing violence decades ago after its early forays into assassination and bombing campaigns, the Brotherhood's importance as a springboard towards more radical Islamic movements for individuals such as al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is well known. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was often spoken of as a member, although there is no evidence he ever joined the movement, just that he fought alongside its volunteers in Palestine in 1948.
Speculation about its other alumni is ongoing, although direct links are difficult to make. ''We are talking about a trans-national movement … which has branches all over the world - any [Brotherhood] chairman in any other country will be subjected to the measure and the principle of the leadership here in Egypt,'' says Dr Hala Mustafa, commentator and editor-in-chief of the journal Democracy.
Soon after the Brotherhood's humble beginnings in 1928 in Egypt, its founder, al-Banna, inspired Muslims in other countries to found their own chapters in the Arab world and as far away as Indonesia, Brown says.
In nearby Tunisia - the first country to depose its leader in the people's revolutions that have rolled across the Middle East and North Africa in the past year - the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party took power in elections late last year. While Ennahda is not officially affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, it is associated, Brown says, and the two watch each other closely. So, too, the Islamist party in Morocco.
''These movements … study each other and actually are, many of them, formally but loosely linked to a sort of international brotherhood organisation.''
However, the West must look at these parties and movements individually, Brown says, in order to get an accurate understanding of what each chapter stands for. A case in point is Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza. ''Hamas has an armed wing, while the Brotherhood in Egypt renounced the violence half a century ago.''
Brown says that for a lot of the Brotherhood in Egypt, Gaza is little more than a charity case. ''It is also important to recognise that not all Islamist movements are Brotherhood movements,'' he says, citing the Salafist movement in Egypt, which is a competitor of the Brotherhood and now forms the second-largest bloc in the Egyptian parliament.
On the key question of Israel, there is a perceptible difference between the way the Muslim Brotherhood deals with the Camp David accords and the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and the way the Freedom and Justice Party tackles the same issue.
The party - faced with the enormity of the problems confronting Egypt after the corruption and cronyism of 30 years under the Mubarak regime - would rather talk of anything else but the Israeli treaty, Brown says.
Ghozlan, the Brotherhood spokesman, is more forthcoming. ''We think this treaty is imposed on us from outside our country. And we think it is an unjust treaty. Because it removes our sovereignty in Sinai … we cannot built an airport there, we cannot send our troops inside the Sinai to protect our borders.
''We think that the Israelis do not respect [the treaty], because they have [undertaken] many attacks against our soldiers without any justification. We have to review it again, if the people want that, via the parliament. And we call Israel to respect it, also.''
But as Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel and vice-president of the Brookings Institution, wrote this week after a visit to Cairo, the Brotherhood leaders ''understand they have to make a choice between feeding the people and fighting Israel, and for the time being they have made a conscious choice of bread over bombs''.
Despite playing a front-line role in Egypt's revolution, however, women are now in an even worse situation than during Mubarak's reign, when they held 12 per cent of seats in the last parliament. More than 370 women ran as candidates in the elections, which began on November 28 and ran over two months. When the results were announced this week, the extent of their failure was laid bare - women hold just 2 per cent of seats.
Part of the problem was the major parties' decision to run female candidates a long way down the ticket. And when the Salafi parties included women on their candidate lists, their faces were replaced with pictures of flowers on campaign posters, after the party leadership deemed the display of photographs of women in public inappropriate.
Hala Mustafa has real concerns about how long the Muslim Brotherhood's public statements professing moderate policies on women and minorities will last in a parliament where more conservative elements are at play. ''I see many experiences around me in the Middle East … in Iran, in Afghanistan, in Sudan. After a very short time, they [Islamists] go back to focus on their moral agenda, watching women, excluding them, marginalising them, talking about separation between the two genders, banning alcohol, interfering in the personal lives of people … also excluding or marginalising minorities with different religion.
''I hope, but I am not sure, that they [the Muslim Brotherhood] will present a different model.''
There is no doubt the next six months will be politically unstable in Egypt, where key players will ''fight for control of the steering wheel'', Brown says. ''But if the military actually does follow the timetable it has promised and stand down following the presidential elections in the middle of the year, what you will have is a popularly elected president … and the Brotherhood and its allies being able to put together something close to a majority in parliament - then you will have stability.
''There are all kinds of things that could go wrong, but the fact that the military has managed things so badly to date makes me think it is more likely that they will at least leave most civilian political and economic affairs alone.''
This, however, is not common wisdom among Egyptians, who just see disorder and chaos ahead. Like many analysts, Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of political Islam is not necessarily a phenomenon to be feared.
In his blog, The Arab Street, Husain wrote this week that ''secular-minded Egyptians must not be too harsh on themselves'' about their poor showing in the recent elections.
''It is because of their success that the Muslim Brotherhood has gone from assassinating Egypt's prime minister in 1948 and creating jihadi training camps in the 1940s, to now embracing parliamentary democracy.''
But, he notes, Egypt's liberals have a long way to go before they come close to presenting an alternative to the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. ''Egypt's liberals should join political parties and undertake the political hard grind necessary to win hearts and minds. Activism on Facebook and Twitter alone does not win elections - networks, narratives, resources, and leadership are crucial.''
And, at the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood possesses these qualities in spades.
Ruth Pollard is Middle East correspondent.