By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — The Muslim Brotherhood's surprise decision to field a presidential candidate is stirring fears that the two biggest powers to emerge from the ouster of Hosni Mubarak — the Islamists and the military — are maneuvering to put in place a new rule in Egypt not much different from the old, authoritarian one.
If they succeed in divvying up the most important positions in government, the new leadership could be a blow to the hopes for an inclusive democracy that drove last year's uprising against Mubarak. Opponents of the Brotherhood and military warn that the maneuvering could lead to a repeat of the Mubarak-era domination by a single party of all executive and legislative powers — only now with an Islamist tinge.
The Brotherhood controls nearly 50 percent of parliament and dominates the constituent assembly that is in charge of writing Egypt's new constitution. Given its electoral strength, its candidate — Khairat el-Shater, the Brotherhood's deputy head but in reality its strongest figure — instantly leaps to front-runner status for the presidency in the May 23-24 election.
"We didn't have a revolution to end up with a dictatorship of the one party," said the head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, Ahmed Said. "If el-Shater is president, will he rule in the name of the people or according to the orders of the Brotherhood?"
The decision to field the Brotherhood's strongman was a surprise even to many of its own members, some of whom have openly expressed disappointment that the group is breaking an earlier promise not to run. They worry the decision sacrifices the group's credibility for short-term gains.
Liberals and secular leaders are fuming the group has abandoned its repeated promise to share power and fear it could monopolize rule, thwarting hopes for democracy. They worry eventually the Brotherhood may try to impose greater Islamic law restrictions and impose a new ruling elite of religious conservatives. Already, for example, a female Brotherhood lawmaker caused a stir by speaking out against the 4-year-old ban on female genital mutilation.
The Brotherhood clearly sees the presidency as vital to protect its political gains.
Since Mubarak's fall, its plan has been to use parliament to wield authority, promote its long-term Islamist agenda, and ensure the new constitution gives greater powers to the legislature, weakening the president's overwhelming authority. Two months after it convened, the Brotherhood has discovered that the parliament it dominates has little power, its attempts to replace the military-picked prime minister with its own have been blocked by the military, and competing Islamists were making their own bids for the presidency.
Saad Emara, a senior Brotherhood figure, said that after its parliament election victory the group has a right to real authority, the presidency, to implement its program.
Mubarak's ruling party "controlled all powers without a popular mandate," said Emara, also a lawmaker. "If we get the presidency, and we have majority in parliament and we can name the government, there will be some kind of harmony in implementing the project we want to achieve for Egypt."
El-Shater's nomination is also a bold play in the Brotherhood's convoluted relationship with the military, which took power after Mubarak's fall. Each distrusts the other but neither can afford a confrontation, so they have been dancing around each other in both cooperation and competition for power.
The generals have not commented on el-Shater, though state media close to the military have more sharply criticized the Brotherhood as power hungry.
However, some observers believe the nomination could not have come without a nod of approval from the military.
"A tactical compromise is entirely possible," said Steven Cook, an Egypt expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is not a tremendous amount of trust but there is a willingness to make deals for short-term political interests."
The generals' top interest is to have a president who preserves the military's long-standing privileges and powers, amassed over nearly six decades at the helm of Egypt's political system. The military is believed to have been searching for a credible candidate to back, so far without success.