Cairo: The Muslim Brotherhood's decision to put forward a candidate for the Egyptian presidential elections will harm the nation's interests and the group's credibility, according to experts.
The Brotherhood on Saturday named deputy supreme guide Khairat Al Shater as its contender in next month's poll, reversing an earlier pledge and triggering suspicion about its political agenda.
"This decision will not pass smoothly within the ranks of the group," said MP Essam Sultan, an ex-member of the Islamist group.
"There is a strong faction inside the Muslim Brotherhood believing that the group should have thrown its weight behind Abdul Moneim Abu Al Fatouh in his bid for presidency."
Abu Al Fatouh was a senior official in the Brotherhood until last year when he was sacked for violating the group's pledge that none of its members would stand for president.
According to Sultan, the group's reversal of its stance will antagonise other political powers who suspect the Brotherhood is trying to monopolise power.
The Brotherhood dominates the two houses of the parliament after making massive gains in recent elections, the first since a popular revolt unseated long-serving president Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
The group has recently drawn fire from liberals and leftists for controlling a constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution for the country.
In announcing its decision to field a candidate for presidency on Saturday, the group's leaders cited what they called serious threats to the "revolution and the process of democratic transformation".
The group's secretary-general, Mahmoud Hussain, explained that the decision was made after the ruling military council refused to sack the interim government of Kamal Al Ganzouri, seen by the group as inefficient, and the junta's alleged threat to dissolve the parliament.
Another reason given by Hussain was the presidential bids launched by some former officials of the Mubarak regime.
"The group does not seek power or gains. It works to fulfil the objectives for which it was created [in 1928], namely to gain God's contentment by guiding people to the sound teachings and values of Islam and achieving comprehensive reforms," he said.
The group was officially banned from 1954 until Mubarak's overthrow. In April last year it announced its first ever political party, Freedom and Justice.
"The group's decision to run a presidential contestant marks a dramatic U-turn in its long history," said Amr Hashem, an expert at Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies.
"It is an example of political opportunism and calls into question the group's political ambitions."
In Hashem's opinion, the group's move increases chances of creating a theology in Egypt, which he said would harm the country's regional and western ties.
"Al Shater's nomination is a strategic mistake on the part of the group," said Mohammad Habib, an ex-Muslim Brotherhood official.
He explained that his objection is based on the fact that Al Shater is a businessman.
"It is illogical that Egypt whose revolution removed Mubarak and his coterie of business tycoons, can be ruled by a businessman," Habib added.
A rise in Islamist influence in post-Mubarak Egypt has raised fears about curbs on freedoms including those for the Christian minority.
In a sign of his opposition to the candidacy decision, Kamal Al Helbawi, a veteran member of the Brotherhood, has announced his departure from the group.
"The Muslim Brotherhood seems to follow in the footsteps of the former [Mubarak] regime in monopolising all powers in the country," Al Helbawi told private Egyptian channel Dream TV.
Observers expect more to defect.
impact of decision
The decision is likely to antagonise 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.
But going head-to-head with the military is a major gamble for a formerly outlawed movement whose strategy for decades seemed to be to patiently bide its time.
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.
If Al 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.
One thing that may have lent urgency to the Brotherhood's nomination of a candidate is the possibility that former President Hosni Mubarak's vice-president, Omar Sulaiman, may run.
His campaigners said in a statement that he would finalise his decision by this week.
Sulaiman would be the ruling generals' preferred candidate, someone who would try to keep the old political system intact and protect the privileges of the military.
The decision to run a presidential candidate may also have as much to do with the Brotherhood's internal politics as its long-term plans.
Splitting the vote?
Al Shater's nomination could further split the Islamist vote, as at least three other Islamists are campaigning, including one who was expelled from the Brotherhood when he defied their earlier decision not to field a candidate.
But the Brotherhood, the oldest and most well-established Islamist group, could use its political clout to encourage Islamist politicians and voters to unite around Al Shater.
A Brotherhood member said that 56 of 108 members of the Brotherhood's shura, or advisory, council voted to pick Al Shater as the group's candidate and 52 voted against it.
Breaching a promise
The decision to field Al Shater could draw criticism, particularly after the group expelled another member, Abdul Moneim Abu Al Fatouh, when he said he would run in spite of the Brotherhood's pledge not to seek the presidency.
"This is not only a breach of their promise, but deliberate defiance of the [ruling] Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," said a Western diplomat, adding the U-turn suggested the group was worried others could disrupt its rise to power.
"The Brotherhood are so close to power they can smell it, but they are so scared that someone else will snatch it from them," the diplomat said.
Will jail terms bar his candidacy?
Al Shater was arrested in 2006, along with other senior members of the group, and jailed in 2007 by a military court on charges including supplying students with weapons and military training.
Jail terms can bar access to elected office for a period but the Brotherhood said this would not derail his candidacy. "When [Al] Shater's name was considered, our lawyers said there is no legal obstacles facing his candidacy," a Brotherhood official said.