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In major reversal, Muslim Brotherhood will vie for Egypt's presidency

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, could end up in control of all three branches of Egypt's new government. 

By Correspondent / April 1, 2012

Khairat al-Shater, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, announced that he will run for president in Egypt's upcoming elections.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters/File

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Cairo

The Muslim Brotherhood has nominated its deputy leader as a candidate in Egypt’s presidential elections, in a reversal that upends the race for Egypt’s first post-revolution leader and could leave the Islamist group in control of all branches of Egypt’s new government.

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The decision to field Khairat El Shater, a wealthy businessman who has served mostly behind the scenes, came after nearly a year in which the Muslim Brotherhood said it would not contest the presidential elections so as not to provoke fear of Islamic rule in Egypt. But in a press conference Saturday night at their new headquarters, Brotherhood leaders said they found it necessary to change course because the transition to democracy is under threat, and the group was stymied in parliament.

"We have chosen the path of the presidency not because we are greedy for power but because we have a majority in parliament which is unable to fulfill its duties," said Mohamed Morsy, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Mahmoud Hussein, the group’s secretary general, cited attempts to “abort the revolution.”

The move is the Brotherhood’s trump card in a recently escalating battle for power with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military council currently ruling Egypt, say analysts. But it could cause a backlash, not only at home but also abroad, among Western governments wary of an Islamist regime in Egypt. The risky step from the conservative movement is an indication of the difficult political realities confronting the Brotherhood as it attempts to transition from a repressed opposition group to a majority power.

“This is the last-mile fight,” says Khalil Al Anani, an expert on Islamist politics at Durham University who is currently in Egypt. “After [the Brotherhood] realized that the parliament is powerless, they decided to fight until the last point that they can reach to guarantee some kind of power over the new political system…. This is a serious conflict over power with the military.”

Still seeking clout

The Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, won nearly 50 percent of the seats in parliament in recent elections. But they have since found those seats gave them less clout than they had anticipated. The military refused repeated Brotherhood demands that SCAF sack the military-appointed cabinet and allow the parliamentary majority to form a government.

This lack of power, despite what was perceived as a strong victory in the elections, was embarrassing and damaging to their credibility, says Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist movements who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “They're not going to accept being marginalized with such a popular mandate,” he says.

At the same time, the movement had few good choices when considering outside presidential candidates to back. They could not endorse any of the handful of Islamist candidates already in the race for various reasons, but risked revolt if they backed a non-Islamist candidate. Not backing a candidate was not an option, says Dr. Anani, because the leadership was afraid a president elected without their support might eventually turn on them. They deliberated mindful of 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser turned on the organization, officially banning it and imprisoning thousands of members. The SCAF invoked that history in a recent statement, as its confrontation with the Brotherhood heightened.

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