At the end of January, a guest speaker drew an unusually large audience of diplomats to the 33rd floor auditorium at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Cairo. For latecomers, there was standing room only.
What made the event unique wasn’t the turnout, but the speaker: Mohamed Morsy, a leading figure in the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, had come to outline his group’s vision of Egypt’s place in the world.
“One year ago, it was unthinkable. But a lot of things were unthinkable in Egypt one year ago,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Amr Roshdy, recounting Morsy’s address in the Foreign Ministry tower on the banks of the river Nile.
Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr did not have time to attend - he was busy with a foreign dignitary. But he caught Morsy on his way out of the building and invited him to his office for a coffee. They chatted for an hour.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, Morsy’s political views could have landed him in jail. But today he heads the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the biggest party in parliament, which has started to make its voice heard in the corridors of power even before it has assumed any executive office.
There have been some results: the group says its lobbying led the Foreign Ministry to toughen Egypt’s stance towards President Bashar al-Assad over his attempts to crush the uprising in Syria - a tangible impact on an area of policy that was once the personal realm of Mubarak.
“If you want to influence the next government’s policy, you need to talk to the Brotherhood, and you need to talk to them in depth,” a Western diplomat based in Cairo, who declined to be named, said.
The Brotherhood’s FJP party won more than 43 percent of seats in parliament, converting deep roots in society into electoral success that raised questions over how it might balance its Islamist platform with the realities of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel and an economy that depends on international tourism for one in eight jobs.
The steady stream of delegations driving up the hill to the Brotherhood’s new headquarters on a plateau overlooking central Cairo testifies to the fact that Western states, foreign businesses and international institutions are already courting the group as a government-in-waiting.
Top U.S. diplomats and senators have been among the visitors to the new cream-colored headquarters with green shutters and an arched portico, filing through the cavernous reception where portraits of bearded Brotherhood leaders from the past hang.
Emboldened by its electoral success, the Brotherhood is becoming ever more vocal about how Egypt should be run. Its focus has not been tighter application of Islamic Sharia law but on Egypt’s economic crisis, rising crime and political reform.
Aware that voters are now looking to it for progress, the Brotherhood wants to get into government. It is pressing the military rulers to appoint a cabinet reflecting the make-up of parliament, code for a coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood’s move to the front and center of public life brings with it the scope for more friction with the army, seen as anxious to preserve influence even after it hands power to a new president at the end of June.
Until now, the Brotherhood has mostly avoided tension with the military, forging an uneasy accommodation with the powerful ruling institution out of concern that the dramatic political gains achieved since Mubarak fell could be reversed.
The consensus view is the group will not abandon that cautious approach soon: the focus of waves of state oppression since it was founded in 1928, the Brotherhood owes its very survival to pragmatism.
But more tension could be inevitable as the Brotherhood tries to advance reforms with the potential to challenge the political and economic power of a military that has been a deeply influential player in Egypt since army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952. There are already signs of strain.
“It’s a working relationship but a tense one and likely to get more tense,” said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist movements at the Brookings Doha Center. “It will be more of a slow-burn confrontation.”
Top of the Brotherhood’s political reform agenda is forging a stronger parliament for the Arab world’s most populous nation that will check the powers of the next president - a position they have decided not to seek for now.
Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie has said the presidential powers, to be set out in a new constitution, must be curbed “so that we don’t produce another pharaoh”. Parliament will pick a 100-person assembly that will write the constitution for this nation of 80 million people.
Vested with little power for now, parliament has been the target of criticism from a public thirsting for results in the few weeks since it convened. But even without the reforms needed to strengthen it, the chamber is playing a more assertive role.
Brotherhood MPs have breathed life into a myriad of parliamentary committees. They include the foreign affairs committee, one of the tools that has helped the group lobby government to toughen Cairo’s stance towards Damascus.
The outcome, say Brotherhood officials, was the Feb. 19 decision by the army-appointed government to formally recall Egypt’s ambassador to Syria - a protest at the crackdown by the government of Assad, an Alawite, on mainly Sunni opponents including the Brotherhood’s Syrian offshoot.
Roshdy, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the ministry’s decision was determined by the situation on the ground. But the ministry had seen MPs’ statements, he added.
“The time for ignoring the public demands vis-à-vis foreign policy is behind us,” he said.
Brotherhood MPs have held several meetings with the foreign minister in recent weeks. Essam el-Erian, the Brotherhood lawmaker who chairs the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, was invited to a Feb. 19 lunch with the minister and the visiting Qatari president of the U.N. General Assembly.
“They (the Brotherhood) want to work with everybody. This is the message I, as an Egyptian, am getting,” Roshdy said.
Gamal Hishmat, a Brotherhood MP who sits on the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, drew a clear link between parliamentary lobbying and the Syria move.
“The withdrawal of the ambassador or his recall was a response to the pressure,” he said.
The parliament is pressing for more: it has asked the government to explain how two Iranian naval ships that docked in Syria on Feb. 18 were allowed to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal linking Europe and Asia. Tehran is a close ally of Damascus.
It was also parliamentary pressure, say Brotherhood officials, which led to the government’s Feb. 21 decision to increase power supplies to Gaza, the Palestinian territory that borders Egypt and is run by Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government in Gaza, thanked Egypt for the fuel after a Feb. 23 meeting in Cairo with the speaker of parliament, himself from the Brotherhood. The next day, Hamas itself turned publicly against their long-time ally Assad, endorsing the revolt against him for the first time.
Ever more frequent Hamas visits to Cairo hint at the potential for deeper ties between the different branches of a Sunni movement united by a similar brand of Islamist thought but not a single political structure.