CAIRO — With presidential elections set to begin in May, Egypt’s most powerful Islamist party is sharply divided over whether the group should field a candidate.
The Muslim Brotherhood had promised for more than a year that it would not enter the race, in an apparent effort to allay fears that the populist group wanted to take advantage of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster to seize control of the country.
But Brotherhood officials suggested last week that they might field a candidate, prompting criticism from political opponents as well as some of the Brotherhood’s own members, who say that a reversal would deal a major blow to the group’s reputation and credibility.
The internal split over the presidential race follows months in which the Brotherhood has tried to tread carefully. While seeking a dominant role in Egypt’s government, the Brotherhood has been hesitant to reach for full control, wary of Western and liberal fears of its rise. Members are also keenly aware that the next year will be a difficult period of transition and, with full control of the country’s political levers, the Brotherhood could be an easy target for blame.
So far, analysts say, the Brotherhood has worked to garner just enough power to dominate the process while bringing others into the fold to share the responsibility. But holding the presidency would take away that shield and put the burden of responsibility on the Brotherhood’s shoulders, analysts said.
Brotherhood officials said they expect the matter to be decided at a meeting of its executive body on Tuesday.
“It’s an unprecedented crisis in the Brotherhood,” said a prominent member of the group, who asked to speak anonymously so he could speak candidly. “Going back on their word is wrong. Islamists have to have morals.”
In a statement Monday, the head of the Brotherhood said the group was only considering fielding a candidate because it was worried that former regime figures backed by the ruling military council would win if it did not. Local newspapers reported Monday that Mubarak-era intelligence chief Omar Suleiman may run for president.
“We certainly do not seek power per se,” Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide, said in a statement.
The Brotherhood — which has emerged as a powerful player after decades of repression by Mubarak’s secular but autocratic regime — has broken at least one earlier political promise. It said its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, would only field candidates for about a third of the seats in Egypt’s first post-revolution parliament. But, in the end, it fielded many more, and members of the group were elected to just under half of the parliamentary seats.
The Islamist organization ousted a prominent progressive member, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, when he defied the group’s leaders and said he would run for president. The candidate the Brotherhood is considering putting forward is its top financier, Khairat el-Shater, who represents more conservative elements of the group.
Last week about 20 young Muslim Brotherhood members went to the group’s headquarters to demand that it honor its promise not to field a candidate. They also urged the group’s leadership to stop its practice of dismissing people for joining other political parties.
The Brotherhood is an ideological organization, not a political one, said Mohammed al-Hadidi, a Brotherhood member who is Shater’s son-in-law and a member of the dissenting group.
“All of the seats we got in the parliament are based on the reputation that we are honest,” Hadidi said in an interview. “We just want to keep our reputation. Dismissing people based on political ideology reflects bad behavior of the Muslim Brothers against their own people, so if they go to the government how will they perform? How will they deal with other Egyptians who might take different opinions?”
The Brotherhood had planned to announce its decision on a presidential candidate on Friday, but the storm of criticism appeared to force a postponement. Leading Brotherhood members have denied any infighting over the issue.
“Twelve people outside the Guidance Bureau is not a protest,” said Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein.
On Monday, however, dissent appeared to be broadening. Mohammed el-Beltagy, a leading member of the Freedom and Justice Party, urged the Brotherhood on his Facebook page not to proffer its own candidate and to “admit its mistakes.”