CAIRO The Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to shape Egypt's political future plunged it into confrontation on Monday with both the ruling military and liberals angry at perceived Islamist attempts to dominate the country.
Liberals quit a 100-person body tasked with writing a new constitution in protest at what they said were Islamist attempts to control the process, a walk-out that cast a shadow over a major component of Egypt's transition from years of autocracy.
Tension has also flared between the Islamists and the ruling generals. A senior Brotherhood leader said the group could stage protests to press its demand for a new Brotherhood-led cabinet.
The friction compounds the challenges for army rule just two months before a presidential election, with the economy edging towards a fiscal crisis that is hurting ordinary Egyptians.
A new constitution is a central element in the transition mapped out by the generals who assumed power when mass protests toppled President Hosni Mubarak last year. Reformists are hoping for written principles that cement a more democratic system.
But the make-up of the body that will draft the document has exposed differences between secular-minded Egyptians and the Islamist parties that dominated parliamentary elections which concluded in February after a vote spanning four months.
Liberal politicians who quit the constituent assembly on Monday complained that around 70 or more of its members were either independent Islamists or members of Islamist parties.
"My concern is the extreme domination of Islamists," said Mona Makram Ebeid, a former member of parliament and one of a handful of Christians picked, explaining her withdrawal.
Amr Hamzawy, a liberal and a serving MP, cited the marginalisation of women, young people and Christians in a statement accounting for his decision to resign.
A Western diplomat said the Brotherhood appeared to be getting more confident and impatient as they got closer to power. "That impatience is most visibly manifested in the Islamist domination of the Constitutional Assembly. That confidence is manifested in the open challenge to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," the diplomat said.
BROTHERHOOD SEEN MORE CONFIDENT
Liberals argue that Islamist success in parliamentary polls should not be reflected in the make-up of the body that will set the rules for how Egypt is governed for years or decades.
Between them, the Brotherhood and the more hardline Nour Party won 70 percent of seats in parliament, giving them a powerful say over the shape of the constitutional assembly.
Mahmoud Hussein, the Brotherhood's secretary general, told Reuters the complaints of the liberals would not undermine the credibility of the process, adding that there was consensus over much of the constitution.
"It is not reasonable for the minority to require the majority to pick a majority from the minority and then to say this is democracy," he said in a telephone interview.
Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood has moved to the heart of public life in Egypt since Mubarak, who maintained a ban on the group, was swept from power. The Brotherhood has repeatedly said it wanted the constitution-writing process to be inclusive.
Since the parliamentary vote, the Brotherhood has grown ever more critical of the government of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, who was appointed by the army in November and is due to serve until mid-year when a new president takes over.
The group wants the military to sack him and appoint a new government that reflects the balance of power in parliament, a demand that has strained the awkward accommodation that has marked ties between the generals and the mainstream Islamists.
The pragmatic Brotherhood, which did not initiate the anti-Mubarak revolt and has stayed out of most protests since the president's fall, may now take to the streets, Hussein said.
"There are tools to put pressure on the military council to sack the government for its poor performance ... and one of these popular means could permit mass protests," he said.
The newspaper run by the Brotherhood's political party foresaw "mass protests to confront the government".
The best organised movement in the country, the Brotherhood tried to reassure Egyptians worried by its political strength by pledging last year not to contest the presidency. Yet that promise is now under review. The group's Shura Council is due to discuss the issue on Tuesday.
In the clearest sign yet that the group may run a candidate, the Brotherhood's overall leader said plans by Mubarak-era figures to seek the presidency had forced the re-think.
"All options are open," Mohamed Badie said in a weekend speech reported by the Brotherhood's website.
(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Tom Perry)