Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief is explaining to a small group of reporters his government's commitment to democracy. He promises that restrictions on political parties will soon be eased to allow for real political competition.
But when asked if the regime will legalize the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular and best-organized opposition group, a bit of steel creeps into his congenial tone. "Never,'' he says. The Brotherhood "will never be a political party."
The Brotherhood - which has provided the intellectual seeds for peaceful Islamist political organizations throughout the world as well as Islamist terrorist groups - is at the center of calls for more democracy not just in Egypt, but in much of the Arab world.
And in this restless Arab spring, the 77-year-old organization, which favors Islamic law and says it's committed to democracy, has been roused from a public slumber. Worried that the proactive steps taken by secular Egyptian reformers like the Kifaya (Enough) Movement could cost the Brotherhood its position as Egypt's leading opposition movement has stirred the organization into action.
In recent months it has organized demonstrations and in turn been hit hard by the government. Thousands of leaders and activists have been arrested in the past two months and more than 800 remain in government custody. In an interview, senior Brotherhood leader Abdul Moneim Abul Futuh alleges one of the arrested, who has since been released, was "severely" tortured while in custody.
Brotherhood leaders say democracy isn't possible unless they and their vast constituency are allowed a voice. The Egyptian government is just as forceful in asserting that any system that allows them a route to power will end in a new form of dictatorship.
In most of the Arab dictatorships, Islamist organizations are the principal opposition, and if they come to power are likely to dramatically reconfigure their societies and their relations with the US.
That unpredictable potential shift frightens not only entrenched regimes but the US and secular opposition groups. While the US has spoken out against Egyptian attacks on secular demonstrators, the words "Muslim Brotherhood" rarely pass US officials' lips in public. Both Arab regimes and secular opposition groups say the stated support for democracy by Islamists is a chimera.
The Brotherhood, which has branches in almost every Muslim country, favored assassination of political opponents and violent tactics in its early decades, but abandoned terrorism in the 1950s. It hasn't been involved in political violence in Egypt since, though it does support political violence by Palestinians and by Iraqis, which it views as legitimate resistance.
Egypt is not alone in outlawing the group. In Syria, where the local Brotherhood is one of the strongest opposition groups, the movement is illegal and membership is punishable by death.
On a day-to-day basis, the Brotherhood's leaders in Egypt have adopted a discourse of democracy - both practical and ideological, if their leaders are to be believed. "For the Brotherhood, the issue of freedom is at the top of our agenda now,'' says Mahdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood's soft-spoken supreme guide. "Freedom is at the heart - it's the principal part - of Islamic law."
According to Mr. Akef, the Brotherhood has evolved a fairly unusual view of Islamic law. Most Islamic orthodoxy holds that apostasy - leaving Islam - is a punishable crime, and is never to be allowed. But asked if his idea of freedom includes allowing a Muslim to choose another religion, or no religion at all, he says, "of course."
Yet almost every non-Islamist in Egypt fears them. "I'm not ready to sacrifice my nation to these people,'' says Said al-Kimmi, an author and historian of Islam who says he favors democracy for Egypt, but limits on religious parties.
"They may say to you they support democracy, but if you look at the history of their beliefs, democracy really doesn't fit with Islam. The sharia is antidemocratic - the rights of women would be attacked and they'd cut people's throats. If my choices are Mubarak's corrupt regime or them, I'll stick with what we have now."
While the secular democracy activists of Kifaya are a narrow and elite strata in Cairo and a few other large cities, the Brotherhood's roots run deep throughout the country. There are 7,000 official chapters and a network of mosques and charities that run schools, provide medical services, and give aid to the poor.
No one knows precisely how many members the movement has, but a Brotherhood rally against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew more than 100,000 protesters. Prime Minister Nazief says he thinks that 10 percent of Egyptians support the group, at most.
Ali Abdel Fatah, the Brotherhood's burly and gregarious chief organizer in Egypt's second city of Alexandria, laughs at the quandary of his organization. He says the Brotherhood is doing everything in its power to convince Egyptians of its commitment to democracy, but concedes that it's difficult to disprove allegations that every democratic promise is part of a conspiracy to trick the people and seize power.
"The Brotherhood should be the ones who are afraid,'' he says. "We haven't had the trial of power, we aren't the ones who've formed military courts to jail opponents, executed peaceful activists, destroyed Egypt's civil society, or transformed the state into a series of personal fiefdoms. All we want is an open and fair system."
Mr. Fatah grew up in a secular household, and became religious at college in the 1970s, at first under the influence of the Gamma Isalmiyah, a more radical group that favored political violence. Like many in his generation he was disillusioned with secularism after Egypt's defeat in its 1967 war with Israel.
By the late 1970s, he'd grown closer to the Brotherhood because of what he said was its more humane and open approach. "For instance, if someone was drunk in public, the Gamma would want to have him whipped. The Brotherhood, instead, would want to talk to him and explain [that] what he's doing is wrong."
Fatah and other Brotherhood leaders point to their management of Egypt's professional syndicates as evidence that they're committed to democracy. The syndicates - quasiofficial professional groups that are a cross between unions and licensing organizations - hold periodic elections. Members pay fees to the syndicates, which run both charities and pension plans for their members.
In the 1980s, the Brotherhood began organizing to take control of the syndicates at the ballot box under the tutelage of Mr. Futuh, a member of the Brotherhood's organizing board and a probable successor to Akef, who is 83, as the organization's supreme guide.
Futuh, who once ran the doctor's syndicate and remains a senior official there, points out that when the Brotherhood has lost syndicate elections it peacefully ceded control. In recent doctors and lawyers syndicate elections, the Brotherhood ran fewer candidates than it could have, essentially inviting representation from both pro-government factions and secular opposition groups onto the boards.
"We changed from wanting to dominate the syndicates to allowing more plural boards because, even though we know we could win control easily with total Brotherhood slates we'd be excluding a lot of people,'' he says. "What we want out of our involvement in the syndicate is to give an Islamic democratic model, to show that it works in practice."
Brotherhood leadership of these organizations has generally reduced mismanagement and improved their financial condition, but has also provided the Brotherhood with a source of funds to advance its own agenda. In recent years, the doctor's syndicate, for instance, has sent a large amount of aid to Palestinians, winning goodwill for the Brotherhood in the process.
And while the doctor's syndicate board may have fewer Muslim Brotherhood members than it used to, the organization's downtown offices remain a bastion for the brothers. The hallways are covered with panoramic photos of the Brotherhood's 2003 protest against the Iraq war and pictures of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the assassinated leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Futuh says Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is so deeply opposed to his organization because of America, which he claims largely controls the Egyptian regime. He says the US knows the Brotherhood would change Egypt's policy toward Israel and probably overturn the two countries 20-year peace deal if it won power.
But while he and other Brotherhood members express frustration at the slow pace of change, they also say they remain committed to the organization's long-term strategy in Egypt, which has put preservation of the movement's core above risking an all-out conflict with the government that could see them destroyed. Fatah says the organization expects it to take decades to rise to power, but it's willing to wait.
Ibrahim al-Hudaiby, a Brotherhood member whose grandfather and great-grandfather ran the organization until their deaths, is a student at American University in Cairo. The movement's democracy rhetoric is no trick, he says, and that the Brotherhood is unlikely to push for more open conflict with the government.
"Revolutions don't really lead to democracies, just look at Iran,'' he says. "The Brotherhood really wants a democracy in Egypt, and it's willing to wait to make that happen peacefully."