Formed in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood organisation sought to introduce social and moral reform in Islam through strict application of principles based on the Quran and the oral traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Brotherhood saw its numbers swell during the second world war and briefly allied itself with the nationalist movements in Egypt which sought to oust the British from the country.
In 1948, Egyptian prime minister Fahmi Nokrashi was killed by a member of the Brotherhood which led to reprisals against the organisation. Egyptian secret police assassinated the murshid (moral leader and guide) Hassan El-Banna in 1949 and ties between successive Egyptian governments and the Brotherhood faltered.
A failed assassination attempt on Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954 led to a wide-scale clampdown on the Brotherhood. Many were arrested and executed.
In 1970, President Anwar al-Sadat promised Sharia law would be implemented in Egypt and ties with the Brotherhood improved. But these quickly soured after a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which they opposed.
Officially banned as a party, members have stood in parliamentary and union elections as independents, slowly increasing the number of seats won.
Thousands of Brotherhood
protesters have been arrested
In the late 1990s, the Brotherhood took on a more active role, calling for democratic reforms in the country.
Several pro-reform demonstrations calling on President Hosni Mubarak to step down led to the arrest of thousands of members, some of them alleging torture and harassment by government forces.
The government has vowed never to recognise the Brotherhood as a legitimate opposition group.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a recent visit to the country, met opposition groups but ignored the Brotherhood.
Aljazeera.net recently interviewed Mahdi Akef, the Brotherhood's current murshid and spokesperson.
Aljazeera.net: You are officially banned as a party, yet you have some influence in parliament and the Shura Council. Some media refer to you as banned, yet tolerated by the Egyptian government. What is your relationship with the Egyptian government?
Mahdi Akef: Dictator governments and regimes have their own terms that they like very much to enforce on the press and the media. At the beginning, the government used to call us a disbanded group. Then they called us a banned group. And I say to them the Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamic organisation that acquires its legitimacy from the masses.
This is the real democracy; the Muslim Brotherhood has the majority of the Egyptian people. The proof is in the election results whether in syndicates or in commissions - the Muslim Brotherhood wins a majority. And they still call us a banned group despite all the media that are interviewing us.
When we participated in a symbolic demonstration, they arrested 3000 of our members. Despite this crackdown we exist, we persist. The oppression is not targeting us alone but all opposition parties in the country.
The point is we will not allow anyone to suppress us. This is our religion and we adhere to its principles. Over 20,000 [members] of our organisation have been arrested in the past 10 years.
Whatever oppression we face will fail to prevent us from saying what we want to say.
That's what makes us gain popularity among the masses who believe in us because we believe in our cause.
Several years ago, you renounced violence and focused on becoming a political machine. Do you believe with the movements calling for reform and pressure on the government to allow multi-party elections that you will be recognised as a legitimate party?
I am a student of El-Banna who throughout his life renounced violence. He once said: "Principles cannot be confronted except by principles and thoughts cannot be confronted except by thoughts and not by sticks or fighting." So violence never was a means for us.
Several pro-reform movements
want Mubarak's rule to end
Every party or movement calls for reform in its own way and we support all who call for reform. This era of political activism is unprecedented in Egypt with all its movements, trends and parties. This is in response to corruption in Egypt, which has reached an unprecedented level. The Muslim Brotherhoods were the first to call on reform in March 2004.
As I said, the Muslim Brotherhoods are an Islamic organisation that acquires its legitimacy from the masses. What else do we need?
Do you envision yourself ever coming to power in Egypt? Are you seeking to unseat the Egyptian government?
We are already a power in Egypt.
If we consider that democracy is derived from the masses, then we are a legitimate power because our support comes from the masses.
The government relies on security forces and mobilise them to serve their interest, but we rely on the masses and their trust and their support.
There are many media and political pundits who say they fear you coming to power because you would install an Iranian-style theocracy. Is this true?
We are in Egypt and we have our own vision and our own culture, and our own way of thinking and principles that serve the interest of this nation. But those who sit on fancy chairs and say words that they themselves don't understand, we don't care about them. There are offices that get paid only to insult, criticise and attack the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) and all that we say and do.
What role will minorities - Christian, Jewish, and other non-Muslims play in society in your view?
We follow our religion and Prophet in dealing with all people in a respectful way. Islam dignifies Christians and Jews and we hope they treat us the same way. The ignorance of people is what is causing a grudge among them and not their religion.
Are you boycotting the presidential elections?
Too early to decide. We are not even sure who the candidates will be.
How do you view the Kifaya (Enough) and other pro-reform movements in Egyptian politics? Are you working with them to pressure the Egyptian government to institute vital changes to the electoral law?
We are not against any of these movements; on the contrary, we rather agree with them.
We all work and call for reform and when their demands meet our demands I encourage and support them. But I never stand against them even when our demands differ. The Ikhwan respect all parties and trends despite their differences.
What are your views on the referendum and its results?
The referendum was a scandal and simply disgusting.
The amended article of the constitution that all the media were happy with, was put out of context and became meaningless.
Now they have made it almost impossible for any candidate to run plus there are 55 other articles in the constitution defining presidential powers. These must be amended, too, but actually they were untouched
This amendment of the constitution is not a step forward on the road of reform, but rather a scandal.