Sobhi Saleh is a lawyer with a small but plush office in Alexandria’s al-Raml district, which he represented as a member of the parliament elected in 2005 as one of 88 independent deputies backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

But when he tried running in November’s parliamentary election, it was not plain sailing. Just getting his candidacy papers accepted was a big hurdle. And when that was achieved, police clamped down on his campaign and more than 40 of his aides were arrested.

The same happened with many of his colleagues, with the final results, described by the Brotherhood as fraudulent, driving the group out of parliament for the first time in 15 years. Mr Saleh says he realises he was doomed, because he was facing a government candidate who was not only a minister but also a former governor of the city and a former senior intelligence officer.

The election is the latest blow dealt to the Islamist movement in a painful few years. “In the past five years, the Muslim Brothers’ parliamentary bloc secured a lot of attention,” says Samer Shehata, a political scientist. “The question now is what the Brotherhood will do to remain politically relevant. It’s going to be more difficult for them to disseminate their ideas and activism.”

The group has limited means at its disposal to regain its lost position. It does not use violence and it has usually avoided confrontation with the state so as not to unleash repression that would destroy its networks and support.

“The immediate priority is to contest the results in Egypt’s highest courts and to co-ordinate a strategy with the rest of the opposition,” says Essam al-Erian, the Brotherhood spokesman.

He specifically mentions the National Association for Change, the movement headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Only three months ago, Mr ElBaradei called for an opposition boycott of the elections. But the Islamist movement rejected the idea, preferring to seize the opportunity to connect with its grassroots and demonstrate its weight.

It had been clear that the authorities intended to cut their representation in parliament following the gains of 2005.

The Brotherhood’s banishment from parliament coincides with signs of divisions, as it carries out an internal debate about its political strategy and values.

“There are several debates inside the Brotherhood which will [now] become louder,” says Amr El Shobaki, a political analyst. “One is between the politicians and those who prefer to focus on dawa [preaching]. The other is between the leadership and young people who want a more radical approach to the government and more engagement with the rest of the opposition.”

Despite painting themselves as “reformists”, the Islamists’ attempt at internal change revealed sharp divisions that shocked secular Egyptians on crucial issues such as the role of women and non-Muslims in public life, or the relationship between religion and lawmaking.

For many, the Brotherhood’s rigid conservatism was out of touch with the ideas of citizenship and democracy embraced by moderate Islamists elsewhere and by most of the Egyptian opposition.

The group’s “general guide”, Mohammed Badie, embodies that type of conservatism. A 67-year-old university professor and veterinarian, his formative experience was imprisonment and torture in the 1960s, alongside Sayyid Qutb, the group’s ideologue, whose most extreme ideas are credited as forming the bedrock of contemporary jihadism.

Mr Badie’s generation of Islamists turned away from radicalism, transforming the Brotherhood into the non-violent mass movement it is today, but they have resisted further change.

His election in December 2009 was followed by the ousting of several reformist figures from the group’s Guidance Council, capping what was seen as a triumph for conservatives, who prefer a less confrontational stance and are sceptical of alliances with secularists.

Many younger members are unhappy with this and are calling for the group to join secular efforts for reform, such as that headed by Mr ElBaradei, which has been pressing for democratic change.

After the vote, Mr ElBaradei called for a campaign of non-violent protests and civil disobedience – a move that would be considerably boosted by the participation of the Brotherhood’s estimated several hundred thousand supporters.

But it is not certain that the leadership is willing to confront the regime.

Asked if the group was prepared to put thousands of supporters on the streets, Mr Erian is evasive. “That decision,” Mr Erian says, “has yet to be made.”

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