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CAIRO (Reuters) - A senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said he would run for president as an independent, a move that could draw votes from backers of the Islamist group that has said it will not field a candidate.
Secular groups and the West are concerned by how much power the Brotherhood may gain after the first elections since the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak. Decades of authoritarian rule has curbed the development of potential rivals.
Egypt's biggest Islamist movement had sought to assuage fears by saying it would not seek the presidency in polls due by early next year; nor would it pursue a majority in September parliamentary polls, contesting only 50 percent of seats.
But Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, a reformist leading member of the group, told Reuters:
"I will run as an independent candidate in the coming presidential elections. I am not a member of any party now."
Abul Futuh said his move did not mean the Brotherhood had changed tack. "The Brotherhood as a group is not competing for the presidency and is now separating its mandates, a move I had called for four years ago," he said, a reference to a new political party the Brotherhood has set up.
Under Mubarak, the group fielded candidates as independents in elections, skirting a ban on its political activities and maintaining a nationwide organisation others lacked.
The military council, in charge until a new president is elected, has said Egypt will not become an Iran-style theocracy.
A poll published on April 22 in the staterun Ahram newspaper showed Abul Futuh and outgoing Arab League chief Amr Moussa, with the highest voter support at 20 percent, while Mohamed ElBaradei, a retired U.N. diplomat, had 12 percent support.
A senior Brotherhood member said Abul Futuh's decision was personal and the group would not back his candidacy. "Abul Futuh's decision counters the Brotherhood's official decision," said Sobhi Saleh, a leading Brotherhood member in Alexandria.
Abul Futuh said he would be able to heal divisions between Muslims and Egypt's minority Christians. Sectarian clashes in a Cairo district this month killed 12 people.
"Such sectarian strife makes me more determined to pursue the presidency. As elements of religious extremism creep up in the transition period, the country needs someone who is best connected to the Muslim, Christian and liberal sides of the political spectrum," he said.
Abul Futuh said Egyptians, not any Western fears, would determined Egypt's future.
"Now that Egyptians have retrieved their country which was stolen from them, no one but they can determine their future. Egyptians will determine who leads them and no foreign pressure can say who leads the new Egypt," he said.
"What is needed are good bilateral relations with international sides. But the West will not rule us," he said.
Egypt's military rulers have promised a swift handover to civilian rule. The presidential and parliamentary votes will be watched closely in the region and the West to see how the Arab world's most populous nation makes the transition to democracy.
Decades of rigged elections make it difficult to gauge the Brotherhood's popularity. It won 20 percent of the seats in a 2005 parliamentary election, despite rigging. Analysts said many Egyptians picked the Brotherhood in a protest and for want of choices. The group boycotted the 2010 poll.
The Islamist group was officially banned but tolerated within limits under Mubarak, who used military trials and security sweeps to repress the group. But it kept a broad, grassroots network through social and other charity work.
"The Brotherhood will get around 25 percent of seats in the new parliament and there'll be no more protest votes going its way now the wheel of democracy is rolling," said Abul Futuh.
Abul Futuh added his decision to run for president did not breach the Brotherhood's rules. He said the group would focus on social activities and leave politics to the newly set up "Freedom and Justice" party, which Abul Futuh has not joined.
"From now on, the Brotherhood will only function as a lobby group. It will not enter politics because that is now the job of the 'Freedom and Justice' party, which is separate from the group," Abul Futuh said.
Abul Futuh is a member of the Brotherhood's shura council but not the 16-member governing body. He said his work covered social and religious affairs.