CAIRO – Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was debating Tuesday whether to field a candidate in upcoming presidential elections, a much-anticipated decision that would signal whether the fundamentalist group intends to escalate or defuse rising tensions with the nation's other political players.
The Brotherhood has emerged as the most powerful political group since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year, capturing nearly 50 percent of the seats in Egypt's first post-uprising parliamentary elections.
It's growing grip on power has fueled concerns among liberals and secularists about the Brotherhood intentions and whether it aims to govern alone, controlling both the parliament and the presidency.
The Islamist group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said on its website that 110 members of the Brotherhood's senior legislative council were meeting Tuesday to decide on fielding a presidential candidate. A top Brotherhood official, Mohammed el-Beltagy, told Egypt's Al-Tahrir television late Monday that an internal poll showed a majority of Brotherhood members oppose reversing the group's earlier pledge not to field a candidate.
According to the Al-Masry Al-Youm daily, two of the top names under consideration are Brotherhood strongman and financier Khayrat el-Shater and parliament speaker Saad el-Katatni, who doesn't have strong popularity in the streets.
Given the Brotherhood's skills at rallying voters, a candidate backed by the Brotherhood would stand a strong chance of winning the presidency.
Other Islamist groups, such as the ultraconservative Salafis, have agreed before to support one candidate to prevent the fragmentation of the Islamist vote, according to Yousseri Hamad, a spokesman for the Salafi Al-Nour party.
This week, the Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis claimed a firm majority of seats on a panel tasked with writing a new constitution. That gives the Islamists a strong hand in writing the new charter, which will determine the balance of power between Egypt's previously all-powerful president and parliament, and define the country's future identity, including the role of religion and minority rights.
Two days after the selection of the 100-member constitutional panel, splits have already emerged. More than a dozen mostly liberal and secular-minded members have withdrawn, saying the committee does not reflect the diversity of Egyptian society.
Meanwhile, Egypt's ruling military council, which took power after Mubarak's ouster is also meeting with political parties Tuesday, a day after it issued a statement that was seen as a concealed warning to the Brotherhood
For weeks, the Brotherhood has been pressing the ruling generals to sack the current government, led by Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, citing incompetence and saying the government's poor performance harms the group's image in the street.
The military had rejected those demands. Moreover, a top Brotherhood leader Rashad Bayoumi said that el-Ganzouri threatened the group of working to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament.
Such a showdown was expected for months.
Egypt's interim constitution, issued by the ruling military generals, has given the military council the power to dissolve and form governments, chipping away at the majority of the parliament's powers.
In the face of its inability to exert power, the Brotherhood has reconsidered its previous pledge not to contest the presidential vote, which was an attempt to assure liberals and Egypt's western allies that the group doesn't intend to govern alone.
Two months ahead of the presidential elections, the group has struggled internally to prevent many of its youth members to abide by its decisions not to support an ex-member of the Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist, who was fired from the group for violating its earlier decision not to run in the elections.