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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood faces barrage of criticism

Khairat al-Shater attends a pro-democracy rally at Tahrir Square in Cairo in this March 4, 2011 file photo. (MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)

Egypt’s most influential Islamist organization faced a barrage of criticism from within and from outside its ranks Sunday after the surprise announcement of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president.

The nomination of Khairat el-Shater — the Brotherhood’s chief strategist and a business tycoon — spurred at least two high-level resignations from the organization. The Facebook page of the Brotherhood’s youth faction was filled with angry denunciations of “hypocrites” and “liars.”

Leaders of the long-oppressed Islamist group had promised multiple times during the past year that they had no intention of fielding a presidential candidate and were not interested in dominating the new Egypt. The vows were an attempt to allay the fears of non- Islamist Egyptians and Western allies. The Brotherhood already controls nearly half of the nation’s newly elected parliament.

But analysts said the Brotherhood made the about-face on a presidential candidate because the constitutional powers of the parliament are unknown, the group’s relationship with the nation’s military rulers is souring and the Brotherhood was worried it would not be able to control any of the other candidates who have stepped forward.

The move came despite the risks to the group’s credibility and the possibility of an even bigger fight with the military, which governs through a shadowy body known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Brotherhood members have grown frustrated with the council because it refuses to dissolve the floundering military-appointed government and replace it with a government dominated by the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.

“It looks like the Brotherhood has decided that they can’t rely on the Supreme Council of the Armed Force and need to amass all the power they can now to deal with SCAF,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation. “It can only be described as overreach.”

The Brotherhood, which has emerged as one of Egypt’s most powerful players since the fall last year of President Hosni Mubarak, had for a time enjoyed a close relationship with the military rulers.

The military had been searching for a partner to protect its vast economic interests and offer a safe exit from power. The Brotherhood had looked to the military to maintain stability as the group consolidated its authority through the parliamentary elections. For months, rumors swirled that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood had planned to jointly back a consensus candidate.

Instead, the relationship turned bitter during the past few weeks, with the Brotherhood accusing the military of trying to rig the presidential elections, which are slated to begin in May. The group also promised to go after the military’s economic empire.

The military council fired back, with one member of the council, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Nasr, warning publicly that the council would “fight to defend our projects,” a reference to lucrative military production contracts. A Facebook page linked to the military council implied the Muslim Brotherhood had an armed wing and promised the army would protect the nation.

The group’s spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said he was not surprised by the intense criticism from Brotherhood “enemies.”

“Every time we accomplish something, their depression and resentment increases and the campaigns against us intensify,” he said.

Ghozlan avoided directly addressing the military, only restating that Shater has the legal right to run. Shater was imprisoned multiple times under Mubarak’s secular regime, but the military council pardoned him and cleared him to participate in the elections. The military has yet to react to the announcement that he will campaign for president.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Mohammed Morsi, issued a statement late Sunday calling for calm and promising that the Brotherhood is not “taking over.”

But critics called the move a major blow to democracy. Nobel laureate and former presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted: “Egyptians sacrificed their lives 4 freedom & dignity not 4 military or religious hegemony nor 4 tyranny of majority.”

Kamal Helbawy, a prominent Brotherhood member, publicly resigned on a television talk show. He said he was disappointed that the group was seeking power the same way Mubarak’s National Democratic Party had.

At least one other member resigned, and a group of Muslim Brotherhood youths issued a statement of condemnation.

“It is unfair for the Brotherhood and for the nation that one faction take on the full responsibility under such circumstances,” the statement said.  

A group of 11 other Islamist organizations also condemned the decision, calling it an affront to the revolution and a “charade” orchestrated by the military to “use the Brotherhood candidate to cover up a wide operation of fraud that will put their candidate in office and entrench their dominance over Egypt for long decades to come.”

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