Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, in control of almost half the seats in parliament, has said it will field its own presidential candidate, reversing an earlier decision not to do so and escalating its confrontation with the nation’s ruling generals and the group’s secular and progressive critics.
A win by its candidate, the group’s chief strategist and deputy leader Khairat al-Shater, would give the formerly outlawed movement a strong grip on both the country’s legislative and executive branches.
The announcement at a Cairo news conference on Saturday ended weeks of speculation and confusion within the group, which believes Islamic principles should regulate all aspects of public and family life.
The decision split the group’s governing Shura council, the group’s legislative body, into two camps: one in
favour of fielding a candidate from within and one against it, fearing the repercussions, according to a Brotherhood official. He spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Egypt’s press describe al-Shater as a multi-millionaire businessman and one of the Brotherhood’s main financiers.
The movement’s decision to nominate one of its own is likely to escalate the group’s confrontation with the council of military generals, who are accused of seeking to preserve the army’s privileges and are likely not to want too much power concentrated in the hands of a single group.
It will also widen the gap with progressives and secularists, who fear that the movement, which has largely espoused moderate rhetoric in the past year, will implement a conservative agenda once it has solidified its political position.
Already, Muslim conservatives enjoy a comfortable majority on a 100-member panel tasked with drafting a new constitution for Egypt, which has raised serious alarm among the nation’s large Christian minority and progressives.
The decision to run a presidential candidate may have as much to do with the Brotherhood’s internal politics as its long-term plans.
Two other advocates of political Islam – one a relative progressive and the other an ultra-conservative – are also running for president, and Brotherhood leaders reportedly feared that these candidates might attract a following from younger members of the movement and break down its legendary discipline.
Mahmoud Hussein, the group’s deputy leader, said the decision to run a candidate was made in the face of “attempts to abort the revolution,” after the military council refused several requests by the Brotherhood to appoint a cabinet of ministers.
“We don’t want to reach a confrontation that affects the path of the nation,” Mohammed Morsi, the top leader of the group’s political arm said.
But such a confrontation is likely. The move reverses a pledge made by the group’s leaders not to contest presidential elections to reassure progressives and Western countries fearful of an Islamic takeover.
The group won close to half of parliament seats in the country’s first post-revolution elections in November. That victory was largely due to the Brotherhood’s grassroots movement, however, and it is unclear how al-Shater will do against other candidates who might have greater name recognition and stronger television presence, such as ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
Al-Shater, who is in his early sixties, joined the Brotherhood in 1974. He has been jailed four times for a total of seven years on charges relating to his membership of the movement, which was outlawed more than 50 years ago.