A power struggle broke out Tuesday for the leadership of Egypt's only permitted Islamist party, the Labour Party, which ended up with three rival chairman supported by different factions within the movement.
Witnesses said thousands of people gathered for two separate meetings in different premises in the Egyptian capital, following recent virulent attacks on the party in the government press.
More than 1,000 people led by party official Hamdi Ahmed occupied the party's headquarters, and elected Ahmed to replace the current chairman Ibrahim Shukri.
At the same time, a similar number led by a second official, Ahmed Idriss, gathered at one of its local branch premises, and proclaimed Idriss chairman, activists said.
The police were on hand, but no violence was reported at the meetings.
The schism could result in the party being suspended by the Parties' Committee, which oversees political activity in Egypt and is run by figures close to the government.
Observers say the power struggle could also mean the current leadership of the party might be replaced by one opposed to the Islamist trend, only a few months before parliamentary elections are due in autumn.
The party's secretary-general, Adel Hussein, who is close to Shukri, told AFP that what had happened was a set-up by the security services designed to oust the current chairman.
"These are actions taken by the security forces, which have nothing to do with the party. The state should not intervene or use force to undermine political parties, or a fatal blow will be dealt to democracy," he said.
The party has come under attack for allegedly inciting students at Cairo's A-Azhar university to demonstrate against the recent republication of a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, which they claim is blasphemous.
Some 50 students were injured last week when protests turned violent, and more than 100 were arrested.
Among the demands of the demonstrators was the resignation of Culture Minister Faruq Hosni for allowing the book to appear.
The Labour Party, founded in 1979, started out as a socialist-orientated movement, but allied itself with the Muslim Brotherhood for the 1987 parliamentary elections. The Brotherhood is banned, but nevertheless plays a part on the Egyptian political scene.
The party formally adopted an Islamist line at its general congress in 1989. It has no members in parliament, which is dominated by President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party - (AFP)
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