Cairo The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for the Egyptian presidency, Khairat Al Shater, declared that introducing Sharia would be his "first and final" objective if he wins elections in May and June.
Making his first reported statements since the Brotherhood's surprise decision to field him in the elections, Al Shater also promised to reform the Interior Ministry which long played a leading role in suppressing dissent.
However, he denied he had struck a deal with the military on his candidacy, announced last Saturday, even though it may help candidates close to the old order of ousted president Hosni Mubarak by splintering the Islamist vote.
"Sharia was and will always be my first and final project and objective," Shater was quoted on Wednesday as telling a meeting of the Religious Association for Rights and Reform — a group of which he is a member, along with figures who belong to the hardline Salafist movement.
Al Shater told the meeting held on Tuesday night that he would establish a special entity to help parliament achieve this objective.
The Brotherhood's reversal of its promise not to contest the elections has drawn criticism from inside and outside the group, whose party controls the biggest bloc in parliament and which dominates an assembly that is drawing up the constitution. Al Shater called for reform of Interior Ministry to curb its "involvement in all aspects of the state".
The 61-year-old millionaire businessman is viewed as a front-runner because of the Brotherhood's organisational clout and grassroots network.
The rise of Islamists is being closely watched in the West, long wary of their influence in Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and recipient of $1.3 billion (Dh4.77 billion) in annual US military aid. But US and other officials have lined up to meet Brotherhood officials, including Shater.
Al Shater, a pragmatic conservative, rejected suggestions that he had connived with the military which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's overthrow last year to undermine the growing popularity of other Islamists.
"There is no deal between me and the military regarding my candidacy," said Al Shater, who often drew up the Brotherhood's strategy from a prison cell during Mubarak's rule.