By HAMZA HENDAWI and SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — The race for Egypt's first president after ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak was not supposed to look like this.
A year ago, anyone from the old regime seemed too tainted to ever hope for power. Though rising to political prominence, the Muslim Brotherhood promised it wouldn't run for the presidency, wary of seeming too dominant.
Now, the two main contenders to rule Egypt are the Brotherhood's top strongman and the most feared and powerful figure of Hosni Mubarak's inner circle — marking how far the nation has changed from the heady days of revolution in the name of liberal democracy.
In many ways, the two likely main front-runners in the May 23-24 election are mirror images of each other. Both the Brotherhood's Khairat el-Shater and Mubarak's longtime intelligence master Omar Suleiman have long been shadowy figures who ran their organizations from behind the scenes. A retired army general, Suleiman ran Egypt's primary national security agency in Mubarak's authoritarian regime, while el-Shater managed indoctrination, discipline and finance for the secretive Brotherhood.
The revolutionary groups that orchestrated last year's 18 days of protests leading to the end of Mubarak's 29-year rule dread both, fearing either one would lead to a similar dictatorial rule.
"Two makers of the repression machine are competing," wrote Ahmed el-Sawy, a columnist in the Al-Shorouk daily.
"The general (Suleiman) is trying to bring back the Mubarak regime as it was," he wrote. "The religious businessman (el-Shater) is trying to reproduce a regime in the Mubarak spirit, with its same biases, international pledges and calculations, but in different cloaks, wearing religious garbs."
Divided and demoralized, the revolutionaries who called for radical reform lost the most in the turmoil that has roiled Egypt since Mubarak's Feb. 11, 2011 ouster. Many Egyptians blame them for the unrest that ensued, including increased crime, an unraveling economy and disruptions from continued protests and strikes. The military generals who took power after Mubarak have repressed and sidelined the groups, depicting them as troublemakers while failing to conduct any reforms or take action to restore security or the economy.
"The presidential election is shaping up like we are going back to square one," said Abdel-Rahman Ayyash, a 22-year-old former Brotherhood member. "But I don't believe people are ready to go back there."
The emergence of Suleiman and el-Shater as candidates is the end result of months of jostling between the two main post-Mubarak powers, the military and the Brotherhood.
El-Shater's candidacy speaks to the change of fortunes for a group that lurked in the nation's political background since it was outlawed in 1954, emerging in post-Mubarak Egypt as the single most powerful political force.
Ironically, it was Suleiman who initiated the process of bringing the Brotherhood in from nearly six decades in the political wilderness. After the Jan. 25 uprising began, Mubarak appointed Suleiman as his vice president, and Suleiman invited representatives of the then-outlawed group to a dialogue as part of a last-gasp attempt to end the uprising.
With Mubarak's fall, Suleiman faded out of public sight. He seemed too tainted by his regime connections to ever hope for public office, though it is believed he retained much of his influence. El-Shater, who spent 12 of the past 20 years in detention under Mubarak's anti-Brotherhood crackdowns, was freed from his latest stint in prison.
The Brotherhood then abandoned liberal pro-democracy groups, which after Mubarak's ouster began to call on the ruling generals to step down as well. The Brotherhood sided with the military to ensure parliamentary elections it was likely to win. Indeed, the group went on to win nearly half the legislature and a firm foundation for political power.
But when the Brotherhood announced it would run el-Shater in the presidential race, Suleiman stepped forward, apparently counting on winning the vote of those fearing Islamist rule. It is believed he has military backing for his candidacy.
In comments to the media Monday, each man sought to cast themselves as the saviors of a revolution that is unraveling.
El-Shater called Suleiman's run "an offense to the revolution."