CAIRO -- At a campaign rally for the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for president, a hardline cleric and TV preacher sang Mohammed Morsi's praises before thousands massed in the stadium of an industrial city in Egypt's Nile Delta.
"We are seeing the dream of the Islamic Caliphate coming true at the hands of Mohammed Morsi," the cleric, Safwat Hegazy, blared from his podium.
"The capital of the Caliphate and the United Arab States is Jerusalem, God [Allah] willing," he added, as thousands cheered and waved the Brotherhood's green flag, chanting, "The people want to implement God's law."
On the campaign trail for the presidential election, now only nine days away, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a sharp turn rightward, becoming bolder in saying it wants to bring a state where religion and Islamic law play a major role -- and insisting that it has the right to rule.
As a result, it has moved away from the more moderate face that it promoted since even before the fall of Hosni Mubarak 15 months ago. During campaigning for parliament elections late last year, the Brotherhood insisted that implementing Islamic law was not its immediate priority, instead speaking vaguely of an "Islamic background" to government. It also sought to assuage fears that it seeks to take over the country by promising to work with other, liberal factions.
Brotherhood's True Face
Critics and former Brotherhood members say the greater assertiveness represents the 82-year-old group's true face, brought by hard-liners who over the past decades have squeezed out moderates and taken control of its leadership. Those hard-liners, the former members say, are more confrontational, more determined to impose Islamic strictures and less likely to share power with others.
Former members believe the group's turn comes out of frustration that the political power they have long dreamed of is slipping away from them. The Brotherhood emerged from the parliament elections as the biggest party in the legislature, a victory it touted as proof of its right to push through its agenda. But it has discovered that the parliament is largely powerless in the face of the ruling military's control.
Its initial candidate for president, Brotherhood deputy leader Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified from the race because of a Mubarak-era conviction. That forced them to turn to Morsi, seen as a weaker candidate. Morsi has struggled to rally religious voters behind him in the face of competition by Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a more moderate Islamist, who has gained support from some of the ultraconservatives known as Salafis.
Morsi has lagged in polls, generally in fourth place in a field of 13 candidates for the May 23-24 first round of elections - behind two former regime candidates and Abolfotoh. The poor showing is so surprising given the Brotherhood's electoral strength that many question the polls' accuracy.
Whatever the reasons, the group no longer tap-dances around questions of implementing Islamic Shariah law.
"We will not accept any alternative to Shariah … The Koran is our constitution and it will always be so," Morsi told a crowd of supporters at a Cairo University rally.
In an interview with The Associated Press, el-Shater -- who appears alongside Morsi on the campaign trail so often that critics say he would be shadow president -- said laws must conform with Shariah. He said the Brotherhood would stipulate that officials tasked with reforming Egypt's economy, politics, media and other sectors also have religious expertise.
"Those who decide what system works best are specialists who are not only political scientists but who also studied Shariah," he said. "They will work on putting together a system that abides by the general rules of Shariah but also with an eye on realities, experience and other countries' experiences."
For example, el-Shater said that a Mubarak-era law giving women the right to seek divorce should be reviewed. The law, he said, was because of the influence of then-first lady Suzanne Mubarak, who he said had a policy of "siding with women in any conflict with men."
On Sunday, the Brotherhood caused controversy when its lawmakers objected to a World Bank loan allocated to improve Egypt's battered sewage system because it would involve interest, which is banned under Shariah.
Abolfotoh 'Too Liberal'
In an appeal to hard-liners this month, the Brotherhood's spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan wrote a blistering commentary against Abolfotoh, warning that he was too liberal. He noted past moderate stances by Abolfotoh: for example that a Christian has the right to be president and that books promoting atheism should not be censored.
A string of recent moves by the Brotherhood to flex its power alienated moderates, even among its supporters, who felt it was going too far.
The group demanded the military allow it to form a government, even going so far as to freeze parliament for several days in protest when the generals refused. The Brotherhood and other Islamists tried to pack a panel tasked with writing the next constitution with their own followers -- only to have liberals on the panel revolt. A court disbanded the Islamist-dominated panel.
Tarek el-Bishri, a prominent former judge seen as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, washed his hands of the group in an article Friday.
"It is using its legislative power not to serve the national interest, but to serve the party and a handful of individuals' interests," el-Bishri wrote. "As a former judge, I am screaming and ask others to scream against this behavior, to clear my conscious before God."
Mindset of Core Leadership
Several former Brotherhood members say the harder line reflects the mindset of the el-Shater and the core leadership, which came to the fore in the past two decades and pushed out moderates. Around 70 prominent moderates have left the group in recent years, including Abolfotoh.
Most of the current leaders believe the Brothers are the only "surviving group that can bring back Egyptians to Islam," said Abdel-Sattar el-Meligi, who was once a senior figure in charge of Brotherhood finances until he fell out with the group.
Though the Brotherhood long included more moderate strains, el-Shater and the current leadership were more influenced by the more intolerant Wahhabi interpretation prevalent in Saudi Arabia, where some sought refuge from regime repression in the 1960s and 70s. They also come from a more secretive wing of the group that has long been working underground, the defectors say.
They point to a Brotherhood document titled "Empowerment on Earth," uncovered in a 1992 raid on el-Shater's office. The 14-page document outlines plans, complete with handwritten diagrams, to infuse Brotherhood supporters in key sectors, including professional syndicates, student unions, business circles and the military and police.
The Brotherhood has denied the plan's authenticity, saying security services concocted it to tar the group. However, el-Meligi and another prominent defector from the Brotherhood, Haitham Abu Khalil, confirmed it.
"The plan is real and it carried working strategy for the group to topple down the regime," el-Meligi said.
© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.