Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, in control of almost half the seats in parliament, announced on Saturday it was fielding its own presidential candidate. It was a reversal of an earlier decision to stay out of the race and could put the group on a collision course with the nation’s ruling generals.
The Brotherhood nominated chief strategist and deputy leader Khayrat el-Shater, a multimillionaire businessman considered one of the key leaders guiding the group through the tumultuous transition since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
If he wins, it would make the formerly outlawed group the dominant force shaping the post-Mubarak era. But going head-to-head with the military is a major gamble for a formerly outlawed movement whose strategy for decades seemed to be to patiently bide its time.
The movement’s decision to nominate one of its own is likely to antagonize Egypt’s military rulers, 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 liberals and secularists, who fear that the movement — which has largely espoused moderate rhetoric in the past year — will implement a hardline Islamist agenda once it has solidified its political position.
Already, Islamists 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 liberals.
The announcement at a Cairo news conference ended weeks of speculation and confusion within the group.
The Saturday decision split the group’s governing Shura council, the group’s legislative body, into two camps: one in favor 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.
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 Islamists — one a relative liberal and the other a hardliner— 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, 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 liberals 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 El-Shater will do against other candidates who might have greater name recognition and stronger television presence, such as ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
El-Shater also faces off against the two other Islamist candidates, although the impact of him splitting the Islamist vote is lessened because the top two candidates in the first round of balloting will go on to a run-off.
El-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 in the Brotherhood, which was outlawed more than 50 years ago.
However, Hussein said that there are “no legal obstacles” in front of El-Shater to contest the election