The Muslim Brotherhood's Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater has left his post to run for president, Brotherhood leaders announced in a press conference Saturday evening.
In a complete change of position, Brotherhood leaders said that due to "a serious threat to the revolution," candidates that represent Mubarak's regime, and a government that has failed to express the will of the people, they had decided that it was necessary to field a candidate.
The announcement of Shater's presidential candidacy is a historical first for the 83-year-old group, which originally pledged that no Brother would run for president to calm secular and western governments fears of a complete Islamist takeover by the group.
The Facebook page of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, also announced shortly before the press conference Saturday evening that party's parliamentary bloc will endorse Shater as a presidential candidate.
Earlier on Saturday, the Muslim Brotherhood's Shura Council held an emergency meeting at the group's headquarters in Moqattam to decide which presidential candidate to back, and whether the group will field a candidate from within its own ranks.
Previously, the group had not specified whether it would field its own candidate, endorse an existing candidate, or refrain from supporting any candidates, giving members the freedom to vote for any of the candidates already in the race.
Brotherhood sources earlier told Al-Masry Al-Youm that Shater had agreed to run for president, but other sources from the group said that some leading members prefered not to have a Brotherhood candidate at all.
Shater, however, should be legally disqualified from running. The leading Brotherhood member is serving out a five-year prison sentence a military court issued in 2008. After President Hosni Mubarak left office, the leading military council released Shater for what it said were medical reasons.
Brotherhood leaders denied that Shater was ineligible.
"There are no legal obstacles preventing Shater from running for president," said a statement from Secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahmoud Hussein on the Freedom and Justice Party's Facebook page.
According to Egyptian law, a person is not eligible to run for public office if he or she is serving a prison sentence. Shater’s candidacy announcement raises the question of whether a pardon is in the near future for him.
The military council recently pardoned Ghad al-Thawra Party leader and Mubarak-era dissident Ayman Nour, freeing him to run for public office. Nour was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly forging signatures on petitions to register his political party in 2005 when he ran against then-President Hosni Mubarak in elections.
There are already three Islamists running for the post. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leading member of the group, Hazem Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative preacher, and Selim al-Awa, an Islamic academic, have already been campaigning in the heated race for weeks.
The Brotherhood prieviously said that it will not back the Islamic frontrunners, saying Aboul Fotouh was out of the question because the former Brother had not respected the group’s decision not to run for presidency. They also said that they will not back Abu Ismail. Rumors surfaced that the group might be looking to endorse Awa.
Banned under the former President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the most powerful political force in the country post-uprising, with its political arm the FJP winning almost half of the seats of the parliament two chambers. The group also has been sweeping most of the professional syndicates’ elections.
This month, the Brotherhood passed its plan for the formation of the 100-member panel that will write the country's post-Mubarak constitution, claiming a majority of members on the panel.
The group, which has a wide support in urban areas, is believed to be the biggest political force in terms of supporters and sympathizers. Some estimate the number to be in the range from half a million to one million. It’s unclear how this number of supporters will affect the presidential vote for which more than 50 million Egyptians are eligible.