A leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday his removal from the presidential ballot showed the army wanted to cling to power, a charge that turns up the heat between generals and Islamists, who both say they back a transition to democracy.
Khairat al-Shater, a wealthy businessman and top official in the Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamist group, had been a frontrunner for next month's first round of voting - until the election committee rejected his bid over a criminal record he acquired during political persecution under Hosni Mubarak.
The military council does not have the serious intention to transfer power, he told a news conference in Cairo, accusing the officers who pushed out fellow general Mubarak after street protests last year of reneging on promises to make way. We must wake up, because there is an attempt to hijack the revolution.
The Brotherhood has already taken a dominant role in the new parliament elected in December, but it fears full power might elude it if excluded from the presidency.
A degree of accommodation between Islamists and the ruling generals who took power since Mubarak was toppled in February 2011 dismayed secular liberals and others demanding more swift reforms, but such cooperation has frayed in recent weeks.
Many Egyptians are concerned about where real power lies in the country and how much control the new head of state will have.
The ruling army council has vowed to hand power to civilians by July 1, after two rounds of voting on May 23-24 and June 16-17. But analysts expect the military to wield influence from behind the scenes long after the formal transition and many now see the army's hands at work in determining who will run.
The armed forces, which have essentially run Egypt since the king was overthrown in 1952 and which also has extensive and shadowy commercial interests, insists it will oversee a free and fair vote, hand over political power, then return to barracks.
Shater's bid for the presidency began less than three weeks ago in a surprise U-turn by the Brotherhood, when it decided to field a candidate. It ended almost as abruptly with a decision by the election committee that Shater called a crime. He has called for a demonstration on Friday against the decision.
Shater's ejection, along with disqualifications of a popular ultra-conservative Islamist and Mubarak's former spy chief, have turned the spotlight back on Amr Moussa, an ex-foreign minister, and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who was expelled from the movement last year when he decided to launch his own campaign.
The Brotherhood has been forced to field its reserve presidential candidate, Mohamed Mursi, who is head of a political party set up by the movement as its political arm.
When we (group and party) fielded a candidate, it is because we see him as the most suitable and best capable of carrying the responsibility, Mursi said late on Wednesday in an interview with Al Jazeera television.
As well as being a businessman, Shater was a political heavyweight in the Brotherhood and spent years in jail, often drawing up strategy from his cell. He was freed shortly after Mubarak was ousted, but the committee said his name had not been cleared, a prerequisite to run, despite a military pardon.
Mursi was then nominated for election as the group's fears mounted that Shater would be pushed out. But Mursi, a 60-year-old engineer, lacks the political clout of Shater and may struggle to make such a big impression on the race, despite having the Brotherhood's potent grassroots network behind him.
Is this the man that never smiles? Why would I vote for someone I've never heard of and who I know nothing about? Sobhy Ahmed, a 39-year-old Cairo security guard, said about Mursi.
MOUSSA, ABOL FOTOUH
A last-minute candidacy announcement by Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's intelligence chief and briefly at the end his vice president, sparked a big protest last Friday by those who believed the decision is proof that remnants of Mubarak's regime were seeking to reverse the gains of the 2011 uprising.
Suleiman, who said he accepted the committee decision, was backed by some Egyptians who saw him as a strongman who could restore security and by some who fear the rise of Islamist politicians.
A Salafi preacher, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who was disqualified because his late mother had obtained U.S. citizenship, said he would file a legal case against the committee accusing it of forgery and manipulation.
I am preparing for them to unveil for the world their lies, he said in a statement on Wednesday calling on his supporters to join mass protests on Friday called for by Liberal youth against candidates affiliated with the old order.
With the Brotherhood's main candidate out, many of its votes could go to Abol Fotouh, analysts say.
He will get many of the votes that were going to go to Shater and Abu Ismail as many will not be convinced by Mursi, who has been away from the Egyptian media in the last period, said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political scientist.
Abol Fotouh, 60, was part of a moderate reform wing in the Brotherhood until his expulsion. He started to win support outside the Islamist movement among secular-minded Egyptians looking for someone committed to democratic reform.
Moussa, who describes himself as a liberal nationalist, is also likely to win votes among such people, who worry about the gains made by Islamists since Mubarak was forced out.
The president must lead a national coalition to save the nation, the 75-year-old former foreign minister and Arab League chief told a rally to launch his programme.
He has promised to serve just one four-year term if elected.
(Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany, Ali Abdelatti, Dina Zayed and Tom Perry; Writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)