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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood says it will not field a candidate in the presidential election expected later this year. But that has not stopped a leading Brotherhood maverick from considering a campaign as an independent.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports that he is charismatic, known as a moderate. And if he runs, his candidacy would send a shockwave through Egypt's largest Islamist movement.

DEBORAH AMOS: Cairo is a city alive with political discussion groups these days and no topic is off-limits, which gives Dr. Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh plenty of places to speak his mind. His support for Egypt's Christian minority, his insistence that religion must be separate from the state, his tolerant views toward secular Egyptians have won him friends in the opposition.

His 30 years in the Muslim Brotherhood, in the top ranks of the movement, earned him a jail sentence during the Mubarak years.

Dr. ABDEL MONEIM ABOL FOTOUH (Member, Muslim Brotherhood): Of course, anybody, an Egyptian struggling for freedom and justice during the Mubarak period, he should go to the prison. Otherwise, he is not really struggling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: Abol Fotouh, a silver-haired former pediatrician, also has a law degree. He's the elected president of the Union of Doctors and a natural politician, which may explain why he hedges when asked directly if he's going to run for president of Egypt.

Dr. FOTOUH: Up to now, I cannot answer about this.

AMOS: But push him a little further...

Dr. FOTOUH: When I introduce myself, I should be active to be the first choice for all Egyptians; otherwise, I shall not introduce myself. I do not introduce myself to fail in the election.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: He worries that Egypt is moving too fast towards a vote. Democracy is not just an election, he says, but a process where society must organize strong parties. Egyptians deserve a choice, he says, a contest of ideas. But the ruling military council wants to hand back power to a civilian leadership, and has set the date for a parliamentary election in September and a presidential vote by the end of the year.

Abol Fotouh will have to decide soon if he intends to run, says Elijah Zarwan, in Cairo for the International Crisis Group.

Mr. ELIJAH ZARWAN (Senior Analyst, North Africa, International Crisis Group): Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh is one of the Brotherhood's most charismatic figures. He speaks very freely, perhaps too freely for the senior leadership of the Brotherhood's liking. His appeal really does extend beyond the Brotherhood's traditional constituency.

(Soundbite of applause)

AMOS: Abol Fotouh is introducing himself to an even wider constituency, as Egypt plunges into an open national political debate for the first time in generations. At this forum, he presented his vision of a democratic, tolerant country where religion is a matter of personal choice.

Dr. FOTOUH: If anybody want to be religious, welcome. If anybody want to be nonreligious, welcome. This is a freedom of each individual. You should advise the people, not control them.

AMOS: His views are controversial within the Brotherhood. He was voted out of a top leadership post last year. But he's popular with the youth wing of the movement, says 30-year-old Ibrahim Houdaiby, an insider whose grandfather was a founding member. He supports Abol Fotouh's ambitions. The country needs a strong Islamist candidate, he says, even though it could cause further splits within the Muslim Brotherhood because the leadership stands against him.

Mr. IBRAHIM HOUDAIBY (Member, Muslim Brotherhood): They would never support him because he is not their candidate. He is not someone they like. They don't like what he stands for.

AMOS: The Brotherhood has stated it will not fill a candidate for president and will force Abol Fotouh to quit the movement if he runs, says Houdaiby.

Mr. HOUDAIBY: So it would be a bizarre scene, where you would find liberal and leftist activists supporting Abol Fotouh, and you would find they would definitely support another candidate.

AMOS: It's a reflection of the state of Egypt's democratic transformation after the fall of the old regime. The cracks are showing in established opposition movements, as new political players step into the spotlight.

Many Egyptians say they're on a crash course, learning about politics and political leaders as fast as they can.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.

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