CAIRO -- The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group, said Wednesday it is considering running its own candidate in upcoming presidential elections, dropping its previous decision to avoid direct participation in the race.
The group appears to be playing one of its last cards in a power struggle against the ruling military council, after it failed to force the military to replace its Cabinet with a new one appointed by the Islamist-dominated parliament.
If a Brotherhood fields a candidate and wins the presidency, the group would control the two main branches of power. In parliamentary elections, the first since a popular uprising unseated President Hosni Mubarak last year, it won nearly half the seats.
Since then, the Brotherhood has sought to allay fears of local liberals as well as Egypt's Western allies about an Islamist takeover by saying it would not field its own candidate for president. Elections are set for May 23-24.
That appears to have changed. Mahmoud Hussein, the Brotherhood's general secretary, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his group has been "forced to consider the option of fielding a candidate from its own ranks."
Besides rejecting its demand for a new Cabinet, Hussein charged that the generals are working behind the scenes to persuade presidential candidates to turn down Brotherhood support.
"When we reach out to some people, they either refuse because they feel they are not up to the mission or they come under pressure from the military council," he said. He declined to give names.
Another factor is that younger Brotherhood members are disobeying the group's leadership by supporting a former Brotherhood leader, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, who was expelled from the movement after he announced his decision to join the race.
Abolfotoh, a strong presidential hopeful, also has the backing of some liberals, who see him as a reformer.
For the Muslim Brotherhood to field a candidate after expelling Abolfotoh for defying its ban on running would be seen as double standards, said Essam Sultan, a lawmaker from the Wasat, or Centrist, party.
"The Brotherhood is in real crisis over the tremendous support Abolfotoh has among its youth, but it will be in a double crisis if tries to solve this by fielding" another candidate, Sultan said.
The name of the Brotherhood's deputy chairman, Khairat el-Shater, has been mentioned in local media as the group's likely candidate.
Critics warn the Brotherhood against taking too much on itself just a year after it emerged from decades of operating in the shadows as an illegal organization.
"It would be a fatal mistake, because they would be faced with huge challenges," said Mohammed Habib, a former deputy leader of the group who quit last year, citing the group's undemocratic policies.
The ruling military council has presidential powers to dismiss Cabinets and form new ones. Under Egypt's interim constitution, the parliament doesn't have the power to take a no-confidence vote in the military's hand-picked government.
In heated parliament sessions, the Brotherhood along with other political parties have harshly criticized Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, a 78-year-old Mubarak-era premier, for failing politically, economically and even over internal security.
El-Ganzouri, appointed in November by the military council, has taken criticism for ineffective handling of explosive issues such as a political spat between Egypt and the United States over U.S.-funded democracy groups, a deadly soccer stadium riot that killed at least 74 people, a surge of armed robberies and other crimes and periodic shortages of fuel and cooking gas.
Sultan said that the government is "fabricating" crises such as fuel shortages in an attempt to reduce the Brotherhood's support among the people.
"The military council, through its government, is telling the people, 'look, your representatives are not able to solve your problems,'" Sultan said.