Several members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, including a prominent senior figure, broke off to form a new political party Sunday, exposing further cracks in the influential Islamic group that is expected to be the most formidable contender in Egypt's upcoming elections.
The Brotherhood was the most powerful and organized opposition party before President Hosni Mubarak was ousted Feb. 11 in a popular uprising. It is expected to win big in parliamentary elections set for September.
But the movement also faces new challenges in post-revolutionary Egypt, where the new political openness is taking a toll on the venerable Islamist group. Several factions _ most recently several young members _ have already broken away to form new parties to rival to the Brotherhood's main Freedom and Justice Party.
The Brotherhood is worried enough by the splinter movements that it has threatened to expel members who join competing parties and threw out a leading member who decided to run for president on his own.
The latest breakaway party is spearheaded by members of the Brotherhood's so-called "reformist" camp, which announced Sunday they were forming a separate bloc called al-Riyada, Arabic for The Pioneers.
The new party views Islam as the foundation of Egyptian culture, but not its politics, said Khaled Dawoud, a senior Brotherhood figure now spearheading al-Riyada. "The culture of Egypt is Islamic, why do we need to elaborate?" Dawoud told The Associated Press.
The Brotherhood, in contrast, marches under the banner of "Islam is the solution" and views Islamic Sharia law as the basis of society.
Dawoud criticized the Brotherhood for not making a clear separation between the group's mission as an Islamic preaching organization and its political party. He also criticized what he called undemocratic practices within the group.
"How come you name a party leader before you carry out internal elections?" he asked, in reference to the naming of the party's leadership.
Dawoud originally joined the Brotherhood in the 1970s as part of a generation of young Islamists at a time when the group was badly weakened by a government crackdown under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who sent thousands of Brotherhood members to prison and executed its top leaders.
Another leading member of the Brotherhood, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fottouh, has announced his plans to run for the upcoming presidential elections, violating the Brotherhood's decision not to field candidates. Abul-Fottouh has already been expelled for violating the group's rules.
Abul-Fottouh represents the most moderate face of the Brotherhood. In many of his writings, he has interpreted the veil not as Islamic dress code but rather a traditional dress like the Indian Sari, more of a national identity than a religious obligation. He also supports rights of any Egyptian, even atheist.
He has come under attack from hard-liners within the group who over the past years have dominated the Brotherhood's leadership and the decision making body within the group.
Hossam Tamam, an Egyptian expert in Islamic groups, said that the cracks within the Muslim Brotherhood will ultimately weaken the group. "They are the ones who be the losers," he said.
"Al-Riyada is very significant because they are the reformists within the group who were isolated for so long. For the first time, we see an Islamic group that doesn't identify itself through Islamic Sharia. This is very important," he said.
"The group will face a historical moment if it doesn't revise its ideas," he said, adding that the rapid defections are directly related to the action the group took against Abul-Fottouh.