The candidate for Egypt's most influential political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, has warned that the country's upcoming presidential race may be rigged, a sign of rising tensions as his group faces off against one of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's most powerful deputies.
Khairat El-Shater, who is also the Islamist group's chief strategist and financier, said that vote fraud might lead to the election of a "new Mubarak" who would spark a "new revolution."
The 61-year-old multimillionaire businessman made the comments in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday as the campaign gets under way for the May 23-24 vote.
His remarks show how Egypt's presidential election is turning into a battle between the country's new rising political power — the Islamists — and the old institutions of power, including the military and the intelligence services, from Mubarak's day.
It was not what anyone expected for the race. A year ago, anyone from the Mubarak era seemed too tainted to ever hope for a rebound. The rising Muslim Brotherhood promised it wouldn't run for the presidency, wary of seeming too dominant and frightening liberals and the West. There was talk of a "consensus candidate" that the Brotherhood and the ruling military council would back jointly.
Now, "consensus" has faded, and both sides are painting apocalyptic pictures of what would happen should the other win.
El-Shater's "new Mubarak" refers to the former president's spy chief Omar Suleiman, who announced his nomination on Friday. The Brotherhood as well as liberals and secularists fear he may be propelled by powerful forces in the military and security services into the presidency.
Suleiman's candidacy is "reinventing a new Mubarak regime, with a new look," El-Shater said.
Both sides have suggested that the race is turning ugly, with dirty tricks and worse.
On the day Suleiman submitted his candidacy papers, the state media flashed an announcement that El-Shater was withdrawing from the race — a report that the Islamist says was a deliberate fabrication to undermine him.
In the first months after the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising that overthrew Mubarak, the 83-year-old Muslim Brotherhood appeared to have cordial relations with the council of military generals that took power as an interim government. But when the Brotherhood tried last month to exert the power of the near-majority of the seats in the legislature it won in parliamentary elections starting in November to dismiss the army-appointed Cabinet, that relationship collapsed.
The entry into the race of Mubarak's most trusted deputy and intelligence chief Suleiman has sparked Islamists' concern that the generals are trying to undercut the Brotherhood's power in order to protect their privileges. Suleiman was one of the biggest foes of the group, which was banned and faced intermittent crackdowns under Mubarak. Last year, Suleiman warned that Islamists are behind revolutions in the Arab world.
"He can't win unless there is fraud," El-Shater said of Suleiman. "I don't want fraud and I don't hope to see fraud but everything is possible and if it happened there will be a new revolution."
Like many in the Brotherhood, El-Shater spoke mostly in broad strokes about what the movement would do if it could: build a nation with "Islam as a reference." The Brotherhood has tried to allay the fears of Christians and secularists who fear that it might restrict minority or women's rights or other freedoms, although some of its critics say that it is only making a show of moderation.
The Brotherhood is also under fire from liberals and others who claim that it is using its parliamentary majority to dominate the process of writing a new constitution. In a blow to the group, Cairo Administrative Court ordered on Tuesday the suspension of the parliament-appointed constitution drafting panel.
Despite the complaints that it is abusing its power, the Brotherhood argues that it has a mandate from the voters.
"The people chose us," El-Shater said, "They are waiting for us to solve their problems and to carry forward their renaissance ... It's not manly or courageous that we let them down."
But he suggested that the Brotherhood might be blocked from implementing its agenda by other powers.
"We don't know if presidential elections will be completed or not, we don't know if after elections we will have a government that expresses the majority or not, whether a constitution is going to be written," he said. "Ambiguity clouds the whole situation and there is a struggle over power."