CAIRO At first glance, it was a victory. Just two months ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was not even in the race for the Egyptian presidency. Last week, its candidate made it to the run-off, according to unofficial results.
The Brotherhood did what it does better than any other group in Egypt: mobilized a nationwide network to get out the vote, catapulting Mohamed Mursi into the second round on June 16 and 17 against Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister.
But the success masks a setback. By its own calculations, the Brotherhood's vote fell by almost half compared to the lower house parliamentary election six months ago.
"I voted for them in parliament, but after that they didn't even pay us a visit," said Mona Mahmoud, expressing a common voter complaint against Egypt's oldest Islamist movement.
The Brotherhood lost ground in some of its heartlands, where its followers once braved tear gas and police beatings to cast votes in parliamentary elections in Hosni Mubarak's era.
In dramatic shifts in a fast-evolving electoral landscape, initial results showed Mursi came fourth in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, an Islamist bastion. He was defeated by Shafiq in Nile Delta provinces long seen as Brotherhood strongholds.
One of the group's leaders hinted at foul play, but the result have also provoked introspection among Brotherhood figures who have seldom blamed anything but a hostile media for their public image problems in the past.
"The Muslim Brotherhood committed a series of errors reflected in a retreat in its popularity in the Egyptian street," Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the group's former Supreme Guide, said in a television interview on Sunday.
As the Brotherhood prepares to confront Shafiq, it is trying to rebut criticisms it sees as unfair, but clearly damaging.
The list is long and includes perceptions the movement has grabbed for power, failed in parliament, broken its word and lurched to the right with divisive, hardline Islamist rhetoric.
Presenting Shafiq as a major threat to Egypt's "revolution", the Brotherhood is reaching out beyond its base, trying to reassemble a broad movement that has fragmented since the uprising that swept Mubarak from power 15 months ago.
The Brotherhood is weighing compromises to win over reform-minded parties and centrist leaders, a tacit recognition that its well-oiled campaign machine may not suffice to beat Shafiq.
Their endorsement could prove crucial, but the Brotherhood has much work to do to roll back a new tide of suspicion.
THE BROTHERHOOD "NEEDS US BADLY"
"The feeling is that you cannot trust the Muslim Brotherhood right now. They have tried to join the national consensus, but each time have given preference to their own objectives," said Hassan Nafaa, an independent voice in the reform movement.
Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University, attended a meeting called by the Brotherhood on Saturday that was part of a new initiative to save Egypt from Mubarak's old guard.
"The Muslim Brotherhood needs us badly right now. They need civil society, a third force. At the same time, we are also going to need (them)," he said.
To reformists, Shafiq represents everything Egyptians rose up against on January 25, 2011, the start of the uprising. They fear a Shafiq presidency would simply restore Mubarak's order.
Shafiq, who like his former boss once led the air force, plays on fears of crime, insecurity and an Islamist takeover.
The Brotherhood, though long at the centre of opposition to Mubarak, has played what some see as a double game.
Critics say the pragmatic Islamist group joined the uprising late and then acquiesced in military rule. They accuse it of selling out the revolution for the sake of political expediency.
The Brotherhood has also been accused of going back on its word. Having first promised to cap its electoral ambitions, it subsequently contested nearly every post in the land, not least the presidency which it had once said it would not seek.
Some Egyptians worry about the group's Islamist vision. Mursi's pledge to implement Islamic law helped him secure support from hardline Islamists - a substantial voter bloc.
But it alarmed just about everyone else, including minority Christians and moderate Muslims who say the Brotherhood has failed to spell out the exact meaning of "implementing sharia".
"The group is giving vague and wide promises that have more than one meaning in order to not lose its religious conservative base," said Gamal Eid, a lawyer and human rights activist.
"They have to talk straight if they want to win the moderate Muslims, liberals and leftists whom they need."
NOUR EXPECTS DEAL BEFORE RUN-OFF
The 84-year-old Brotherhood often complains it is the victim of a vicious media campaign in a country where it has been depicted as an enemy of the state for decades.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Brotherhood's executive board, cited a recent newspaper report that alleged the group had planned to assassinate one of its presidential rivals.
"I don't know if this is something that makes you laugh or cry," he told Reuters by telephone. "There's no doubting its effect on the voters in general, especially the common people."
With Mursi only narrowly ahead of Shafiq, according to unofficial results, the Brotherhood is looking to win support from the many voters who backed the first-round runners-up.
Between them, third-placed Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist, and fourth-placed Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an independent Islamist, secured some 40 percent of the vote, representing new currents alongside the decades-old struggle between the Brotherhood and a military-backed secular autocracy.
Both men were invited to take part in the new Brotherhood initiative, but neither attended Saturday's meeting.
The Brotherhood's proposed national dialogue will cover top executive posts, the shape of the next government and the vexed question of who should draft a new constitution, said Mohamed Beltagi, a leader of the group's Freedom and Justice Party.
The Brotherhood is also ready to discuss how its manifesto, an 80-page document based on its "centrist understanding of Islam", can be combined with other electoral program.
"I am not relying on the Islamic bloc, but the revolutionary national bloc to confront Ahmed Shafiq, the bloc that got 65 percent or more in the elections," said Beltagi.
The Brotherhood's new interlocutors have demanded the creation of a 10-member presidential council and an eventual coalition government to be led by a non-Brotherhood politician.
"Until now, we only got talk, beautiful words of cooperation," said Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who attended the meeting. But he added that the Brotherhood needed broad support of liberals and others to win the run-off.
"That is why I am certain that we will reach something tangible before the second round," he said.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alistair Lyon)