CAIRO (Reuters) - A leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday his removal from the presidential ballot showed the army wanted to cling to power, a charge that turns up the heat between generals and Islamists, who both say they back a transition to democracy.
Khairat al-Shater, a wealthy businessman and top official in the Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest Islamist group, had been a frontrunner for next month’s first round of voting - until the election committee rejected his bid over a criminal record he acquired during political persecution under Hosni Mubarak.
“The military council does not have the serious intention to transfer power,” he told a news conference in Cairo, accusing the officers who pushed out fellow general Mubarak after street protests last year of reneging on promises to make way. “We must wake up, because there is an attempt to hijack the revolution.”
The Brotherhood, which built up a mass following despite its suppression by Mubarak’s security apparatus, has already taken a dominant role in the new parliament elected in December, but it fears full power might elude it if excluded from the presidency.
A degree of accommodation between the Islamists and their old foes in the army in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s fall dismayed secular liberals and others who had wanted faster and more sweeping political change after the revolution.
That relationship has frayed in recent weeks, although there is little sign for now of a return of the kind of street violence that has blighted the transition at frequent intervals.
Shater’s remarks point to a broader debate among Egyptians about where real power lies in the country run by a council of army generals since Mubarak was toppled in February last year and just how much control the new head of state will have.
The ruling army council has vowed to hand power to civilians by July 1, after two rounds of voting on May 23-24 and June 16-17. But analysts expect the military to wield influence from behind the scenes long after the formal transition and many now see the army’s hands at work in determining who will run.
The armed forces, which have essentially run Egypt since the king was toppled in 1952 and which also has extensive and shadowy commercial interests, insists it will oversee a free and fair vote, hand over political power, then return to barracks.
Shater’s bid for the presidency began less than three weeks ago in a surprise U-turn by the Brotherhood, when it decided to field a candidate. It ended almost as abruptly with a decision by the election committee that Shater called a “crime”. He has called for a demonstration on Friday against the decision.
Shater’s ejection, along with disqualifications of a popular ultra-conservative Islamist and Mubarak’s former spy chief, have turned the spotlight back on Amr Moussa, an ex-foreign minister, and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who campaigned longer than others but who were being overshadowed in the race.
The Brotherhood has been forced to field its reserve presidential candidate, Mohamed Mursi, who is head of a political party set up by the movement following the removal of a Mubarak-era ban on its participation in Egyptian politics. He, however, has much less of a popular profile than Shater.
As well as being a businessman, Shater was a political heavyweight in the Brotherhood and spent years in jail, often drawing up strategy from his cell. He was freed shortly after Mubarak was ousted, but the committee said his name had not been cleared, a prerequisite to run, despite a military pardon.
Mursi was then nominated for election as the group’s fears mounted that Shater would be pushed out. But Mursi, a 60-year-old engineer, lacks the political clout of Shater and may struggle to make such a big impression on the race, despite having the Brotherhood’s potent grassroots network behind him.
“Is this the man that never smiles? Why would I vote for someone I’ve never heard of and who I know nothing about?” Sobhy Ahmed, a 39-year-old Cairo security guard, said about Mursi.
Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief and briefly at the end his vice president, made a last-minute announcement that he would run. He was backed by some Egyptians who saw him as a strongman who could restore security and by some who fear the rise of Islamist politicians, who swept the parliamentary vote.
But Suleiman also sparked a big protest last Friday by those who said the former general’s bid showed remnants of Mubarak’s regime were seeking to reverse the gains of uprising that sought to end six decades of rule by ex-military men like Mubarak.
Suleiman said in remarks published by the state-run Al-Ahram daily that he would respect the decision of the committee.
Suleiman’s rival, Shater, had been stressing his Islamist credentials on his few days on the campaign trail, striking a tone that could have galvanized support from the ultra-orthodox Salafi movement which also did well in the legislative election.
A Salafi preacher, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, had hoped that same constituency would launch him into the presidency. But he too is now out of the vote, disqualified because his late mother had obtained a U.S. passport - something he strongly denies.
The Brotherhood, which had until lately not planned to field a candidate at all, may not seek to impose voting discipline and push its members to back Mursi now that its prime candidate is out. That could benefit Abol Fotouh, who was expelled from the movement last year when he decided to launch his own campaign.
“He will get many of the votes that were going to go to Shater and Abu Ismail as many will not be convinced by Mursi, who has been away from the Egyptian media in the last period,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political scientist.
Abol Fotouh, 60, was part of a moderate reform wing in the Brotherhood until his expulsion. His candidacy has won the approval of Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar who is influential in the Brotherhood and beyond.
A physician by training, Abol Fotouh has also started to win support outside the Islamist movement among secular-minded Egyptians looking for someone committed to democratic reform.
Moussa, who describes himself as a liberal nationalist, is also likely to win votes among such people, who worry about the gains made by Islamists since Mubarak was toppled.
“The president must lead a national coalition to save the nation,” the 75-year-old former foreign minister and Arab League chief, told a rally to launch his program.
He has promised to serve just one four-year term if elected.
Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany, Ali Abdelatti, Dina Zayed and Tom Perry; Writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Perry; Editing by Alastair Macdonald