CAIRO — 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.
In el-Shater, the Brotherhood have put forward a powerful figure who would firmly establish the group's authority if he wins. But he is possibly a figure the generals can deal with, seen by many as an extension of the Mubarak-era politicians with a strong business background.
El-Shater, 61, joined the Brotherhood in 1974 and built a business empire. With other Brotherhood members, he founded one of the region's most established information systems companies, which survived a crackdown by the Mubarak regime in 1992. His businesses range from an upscale furniture chain to manufacturers of menswear and buses.
He became the behind-the-scenes strategist and top financier of the Brotherhood — as powerful as its supreme leader — and was imprisoned by Mubarak for 12 of the past 20 years. He is known as a supporter of free market economics but also as a conservative within the group, who shies away from addressing women in the eye in keeping with Islamist modesty demands. Brotherhood members who worked close to him say he is more pragmatic than ideological.
Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic movements, likened el-Shater to Ahmed Ezz, a business tycoon who helped restructure Mubarak's ruling party in the 2000s to empower young, business-minded members and boost the potential candidacy of Mubarak's son Gamal to office.
"El-Shater created power centers within the group which answer to him," said el-Anani. "He is a broker, a man that you make business with. ... He is a kingmaker who doesn't have charisma. The military can easily trust in someone like him."
Emara, of the Brotherhood, said the group's nomination is "a strong card."
"There is a balance of power on the ground," he said. "We absolutely don't want a clash (with the military)... But we are trying to reach some kind of accord."
He denied any closed-door dealmaking. But he suggested the two sides could find a way of living together. He said the Brotherhood accepts that the military keep the defense and national security portfolios, while the Brotherhood wants power to deliver on issues of restoring security and improving the economy, education and health services and could put aside for now its demands for a more powerful parliament.
The U.S. and Israel have has seemed unalarmed by his nomination, and U.S. lawmakers have been among a stream of foreign dignitaries meeting him in recent weeks. "It was a very interesting and enlightening meeting," said Republican David Dreier, part of a congressional delegation that sat with him for over an hour Monday. He said el-Shater addressed human rights, women's rights and rule of law.
Commenting on el-Shater, Israel's vice prime minister said Sunday the peace treaty is in the interest of any Egyptian leader.
Critics say the presidential bid shows the Brotherhood only aims to dominate. Many liberals, leftists and secular figures have quit the constitutional assembly to protest Islamists' control of its formation.
"They are flexing their muscles," said Ziad el-Oleimi, a lawmaker for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. "Between them and the military council, each is trying to assume as much power as they can while sidelining all other forces."
Even within the Brotherhood, there is dissent over the decision to field any candidate. The vote in the Brotherhood's Shura Council over whether to do so was close — 56 in favor and 52 against. Dissenters have formed a group called "A Brotherhood Cry" that has held rallies objecting to the nomination and demanding the right to vote for whomever they prefer.
"People view us as ... a group that seeks to monopolize power," said Gafaar el-Zaafarani, a young Brother and son of a former leader.Comment on this story
Moreover, if a fully empowered Brotherhood can't ease Egypt's multiple problems, the group's long-term position is threatened. "If we are in the front, we may fail and our failure be exposed. This is a disaster."
Hani Sabra, a Middle East analyst with the Eurasia group, said el-Shater's candidacy shows the emboldened Brotherhood "enjoys a slight edge" in the competition with the military, though tensions could boil over if the generals retaliate by putting forward their own candidate.
"But the fact that the Brotherhood fielded el-Shater illustrates that it essentially called the shots."