Middle East

'Moment of truth' for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

Supporters hold up posters of Abdul Moneim Abu al-Futuh
Image caption Presidential hopeful Abdul Moneim Abu al-Futuh was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood should be riding the crest of a wave. It is on the verge of power for the first time in its 84-year history. Instead it is bitterly divided, and coming close to a major confrontation with the ruling military council.

Once again, on Tuesday, a lengthy meeting of senior members broke up without agreement on the vexed question over whether or not to field a candidate for presidential elections that start in May.

The decision has been postponed until next week, with only a few days remaining before the close of nominations. And that is only one of a series of problems it faces.

Not so long ago it seemed that the Brotherhood would be the main beneficiary of last year's revolution, and that could still yet be the case.

The movement's political arm won around a third of the votes, and nearly half the seats in the first parliamentary elections after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

But since then the Brotherhood seems to be undecided over what to do with that victory.

It has demanded to be allowed to form a government. But it has not pressed its case as strongly as it might. Brotherhood MPs have so far stepped back from pushing a vote of no confidence in the existing government.

And the movement has not attempted to stage any mass demonstrations, its most powerful weapon.

Even without a share in government, it already has a strong position in parliament.

Yet human rights activists say the Brotherhood has not done enough to press for reforms, particularly within the notorious interior ministry.

Presidential ambitions?

Above all, what's really been troubling the Brotherhood is the issue of whether to put up a presidential candidate to succeed Hosni Mubarak.

Last year, in the early days of the revolution, the Brotherhood announced it would not be contesting the presidency.

The move seemed designed to reassure opponents inside and outside Egypt.

When one of its leading members, Abdul Moneim Abu al-Futuh, decided to put his name forward despite that ruling, he was quickly expelled from the movement.

Image caption The Brotherhood leader says it is reconsidering its options because Mubarak supporters are working for his return

But since then he has been gaining strong support, especially from younger members of the Brotherhood. And some other Islamist candidates have been picking up support as well.

All of that has challenged the power, and the legendary discipline, of the Brotherhood. And it has provoked some fairly withering criticism from commentators.

"The Muslim Brotherhood wants the gains without paying the price," wrote Ma'mun Findi of the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat.

"The Muslim Brotherhood prefers to be in the seats of the critics in order to gain popularity on television, rather than to shoulder the major political and social responsibilities that come with the presidency," he added.

Senior figures within the Brotherhood have said they are now reconsidering.

Lengthy meetings have been held. Several potential candidates from within the movement have been suggested. But still the leadership cannot decide.

One reason may be that the Brotherhood does not want to have to take responsibility for some of the tough decisions which will soon have to be made, such as possibly cutting fuel subsidies.

With so many other candidates already running campaigns across Egypt, it is also a real possibility that a Muslim Brotherhood candidate might be denied victory, something which would be humiliating for such a powerful political force.

'All options open'

The Brotherhood has defended its recent actions, and attacked its critics.

The Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein said: "The Muslim Brotherhood is subject to a fierce campaign by the media and political rivals to the extent of fabricating news and attributing them to the Guidance Office (the central body of the movement)."

The aim, he said, was to "drive a wedge between the Brotherhood and all political forces".

The Muslim Brotherhood's General Guide, Mohammed Badi, criticised recent media coverage of the Brotherhood's troubles, comparing them to "Pharaoh's magicians" whom he said "gathered to bewitch people and turn them away from the true faith".

He also explained: "When we initially refused to run for the presidency, it was out of concern for Egypt.

"For the same reason we're reviewing the decision now that there are new developments on the political scene with former regime figures announcing candidacy - like Omar Suleiman (former intelligence chief and briefly vice president who has said he is considering his position) and others, even Mubarak supporters working for the ousted despot's return.

"So, we consider all options open."

'Moment of truth'

For the Brotherhood to put up a candidate for president could also bring it into direct conflict with the ruling military council. And that is the other big dilemma facing the movement.

Many Egyptians believe, even fear, that the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council have been brokering a behind the scenes deal to share out power, once the formal handover to civilian rule happens at the end of June.

The outlines of such a deal might include immunity from prosecution for the military, and protecting the military budget from scrutiny, in return for the military council facilitating the Muslim Brotherhood's entry into government.

But if any deal was brewing, it seems to have hit major difficulties in recent days.

Over the weekend, the Brotherhood suggested that the military might be attempting to rig the presidential election.

In response the military council put out a furious statement condemning "malicious lies and accusations".

So now, Egyptian politics look on the brink of another possible period of turmoil. But as with so much since the revolution, exactly what and when is impossible to predict.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has tried to avoid a clash (with the military)," explained Ayman al-Sayyid, editor in chief of Weghat Nazar magazine. "But now we are facing the moment of truth."