Amr Nabil, File, Associated Press
CAIRO — The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood named its chief strategist and financier as a candidate for president on Saturday, a surprising reversal of an earlier pledge to stay out of the race and a move that sets the group on a collision course with Egypt's military rulers.
The long-outlawed Brotherhood already controls about half of the seats in parliament and had been concerned that contesting the presidency would bring a backlash from liberals and Western countries fearful of an Islamist takeover.
But in a dramatic shift that amounted to a political bombshell in Egypt, the Brotherhood nominated deputy leader Khayrat el-Shater. The multimillionaire businessman has played a key role in guiding the group through the tumultuous transition since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in last year's popular uprising.
Because of the Brotherhood's success in the parliamentary vote and the reach of its grassroots political organization, the candidate it nominates or backs will be considered the frontrunner in the race for the May 23-24 vote.
And if el-Shater wins, the Brotherhood would completely dominate the political arena and could push for changes such as stricter adherence to Islamic law. A Muslim Brotherhood government could also translate into rockier relations with Israel and the United States.
The decision will likely antagonize the ruling generals, who are worried about shielding their significant business interests and other privileges from civilian oversight and are wary of too much power concentrated in the hands of a single group.
"We don't want to reach a confrontation that affects the path of the nation," Mohammed Morsi, top leader of the Brotherhood's political arm said.
The decision will also widen the gap with liberals and secularists, who fear that the Brotherhood — 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 candidate was announced at a Cairo news conference and ended weeks of speculation and confusion within the group.
It split the Brotherhood's Shura council, or legislative body, into two camps: one in favor of fielding a candidate and one against, fearing the repercussions, according to a Brotherhood official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
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 government.
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 organization.
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.
He is seen as the iron man within the group, the one who steers talks with the military council, orchestrator of parliamentary elections and the negotiator with Arab Gulf countries and International Monetary Fund over loans.
"El-Shater is the real power center and he is struggling to expand the group's powers within Egypt's system and institutions against the generals' will," said Khalil el-Anani, expert on Islamist movements.
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