REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Rifts within the Muslim Brotherhood are deepening over whether the nation's most potent political force should risk a public backlash by running a candidate for president in May.
Soon after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed last year, the Brotherhood promised not to field a candidate to allay fears by secularists and the ruling military council that Islamists would dominate a new government. But sensing a chance to advance its political ambitions, the Brotherhood, which controls parliament, is contemplating breaking that vow.
The prospect has highlighted divisions within the organization over whether the Brotherhood should further jeopardize its credibility and likely anger the army, which is expected to hand power to a civilian government in June. The dilemma provides a signal that the Brotherhood is not as cohesive as it was during its years as the strongest opponent to Mubarak's autocratic rule.
Political analyst Mohamed Saied said the group is determined to strengthen its hold on both branches of government: "The Brotherhood was content with winning the parliament and thought that would be enough to implement their own political agenda without having a president from their ranks," he said.
"However, and only after two months of parliamentary sessions," he added, "they realized that their parliament is pretty helpless and incapable of making any major decisions or issuing real regulations."
The group's Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, said discussions over offering a candidate were based on "recent developments" on the Egyptian political scene. The group has failed to agree on any of the front-running Islamist candidates: Salafi cleric Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, Mohamed Selim Awa or Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member who was expelled when he announced his candidacy last year.
There is strong support within the group for nominating Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat Shater, who spent much of his time in prison during Mubarak's rule. Reports suggest the Brotherhood may decided on a candidate by next week. But a recent demonstration in front of the Brotherhood's headquarters by young members, including Shater's son-in-law, highlighted intense differences.
"We call on the group's leadership to allow its members to freely decide their candidates and vote discreetly without facing expulsion from the group if they opt for different candidate," said Osama Gamal Abdel Hadi. "The Brotherhood can't come out now and refute its promise not to nominate one of its members. No one will trust us anymore."
The debate is the latest eruption in a volatile political landscape. Liberals and leftists lawmakers resigned Tuesday from a panel writing the country's new constitution over claims the Brotherhood and other Islamists were dominating the agenda. The liberals said they would draft their own constitution.
"We shall undertake this duty from outside the official assembly in collaboration with all the segments of society and experts that should have been included from the beginning," said a statement from the group.
--Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Muslim Brotherhood deputy chairman Khairat Shater. Credit: Mohammed Abu Zaid / Associated Press