CAIRO // The Muslim Brotherhood's surprise move to run a candidate for Egypt's presidency has heightened the stakes in the Islamist organisation's increasingly public confrontation with the ruling military council.
The selection of the party's top financier, Khairat Al Shater, 62, on Saturday, ended weeks of speculation over whether the organisation would break its promise not to nominate a candidate for the May elections.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party dominated recent elections for both houses of parliament. It had pledged not to field a candidate for the presidency to allay fears of liberals and secularists, who were concerned that the Brotherhood would implement a hardline Islamist agenda after solidifying its political position.
"My intuition is that they were forced into it, effectively," said David Siddhartha Patel, an expert on Middle Eastern politics and Islamic institutions At Cornell University. "There are Islamist candidates running on both their right and left."
Mr Al Shater is the Brotherhood's former deputy leader and arguably the most powerful figure in the organisation, which was banned for three decades under the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Like many members of Egypt's main Islamist group, he spent years in jail during Mubarak's rule.
The announcement is a particularly sharp barb for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) after weeks of wrangling with the Brotherhood over Scaf's refusal to withdraw its interim cabinet.
The Muslim Brotherhood had been critical of Scaf and its cabinet for failures that included the lack of security at the Port Said football riot in February that led to 74 deaths, "squandering" state funds, and failing to fix the country's economic problems.
The Brotherhood's decision to run a candidate challenges the ruling generals' interest in maintaining stability in the lead-up to the elections, according to Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired major general and senior analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"The Muslim Brotherhood wants everything to go according to their likes - the parliament, the constitutional situation and now the presidential elections - and this is not good for the Scaf. They want everything to be stable now without change," said Dr Said.
Mr Al Shater's nomination is the latest in a series of unkept Brotherhood promises, including pledges to limit the number of constituencies in which its party would run in parliamentary elections.
Brotherhood leaders had also said that the committee writing the constitution, which its party had a major role in selecting, would represent all strands of society.
Instead, Islamists dominate the committee and a Brotherhood leader heads it.
"They change their minds every day, so there's nothing new here," said Mona Makram Ebeid, a former member of parliament.
Ms Ebeid was a member of the constitutional committee but withdrew last week to protest against its overwhelmingly Islamist make-up.
"They say something and they change their minds," she said. "All this year we've seen so many examples of that."
Mr Al Shater joins two other prominent Islamist candidates in the race and may split the vote.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and the ultraconservative Islamist, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, have been campaigning intensely for weeks.
Brotherhood leaders kicked Mr Fotouh out of the party last year after he announced his candidacy in the face of the organisation's pledge not to field a candidate.
Mr Fotouh enjoys support from liberals and young Brotherhood members and his candidacy could undermine Mr Al Shater's backing among young Islamists.
The final race could end up between Mr Al Shater and Amr Moussa, a former Arab League secretary and foreign minister under Mubarak, said Dr Patel.
There is also a concern that a Muslim Brotherhood government could result in rockier relations with Israel and the United States.
Israel's vice prime minister yesterday played down the Brotherhood's decision to stand for the presidency. Moshe Yaalon said maintaining peace with Israel was in the interest of any Egyptian leader and that Cairo's relationship with the US was linked to Israel's 1979 peace agreement with Egypt.
Brotherhood leaders on Saturday said they had not wanted to offer a candidate, but were doing so to protect the uprising. The Brotherhood's secretary general, Mahmud Hussein, noted that some presidential hopefuls were members of the old regime and said there was "a real threat to the revolution and to the democratic process".
With additional reports from the Associated Press