The move brings further uncertainty over the future of the Arab world’s most populous country, a longstanding ally of the United States and the first Arab state to make peace – albeit grudgingly – with Israel.
Supporters are in an uproar over the decision to bar Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater, ultra-conservative Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail, and former Mubarak regime spy chief Omar Suleiman.
The electoral commission disqualified Shater – generally assumed to be the frontrunner given the Brotherhood’s popularity and resources – because he has a Mubarak-era criminal conviction.
Ismail was ruled ineligible because his late mother held dual Egyptian-U.S. citizenship, and Suleiman was disqualified on the grounds he did not meet the requirement for signatures endorsing his bid. All three campaigns said they would challenge the rulings within the 48-hour window available to do so.
With the election of Egypt’s first post-revolutionary president less than six weeks away, the campaign has, once again, been thrown into turmoil.
After his disqualification was announced, Shater said that whether he or Mursi ends up as the candidate, the Brotherhood would proceed with its campaign against what he described as an effort to reproduce the ousted regime of former president Hosni Mubarak.
“We are ready and willing to go back to the squares of liberation again to complete the march of the revolution,” he told a weekend gathering in Cairo. “We are ready and willing to pay an even greater price for liberation of this homeland and in order to combat and prevent gangs of old-guard cronies from replicating the corrupt system of governance.”
“We will not enable the enemies of the revolution to abort it, even if we have to sacrifice thousands of martyrs again,” the Brotherhood’s Web site quoted Shater as saying. “I urge all citizens to stand together united, in order to complete the march of the revolution, which is currently under threat of failure as certain hands target all Islamists, in the hope of reproducing the former regime, so as to illegitimately resume looting the people’s resources.”
Echoing that theme, official Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan on Sunday decried what he called a “substantial threat to the gains of the revolution, a heinous attempt to reproduce the corrupt former regime with the same faces.”
Ghozlan said the Brotherhood would take part in mass protests – “protect the revolution million-man march” – planned for Friday this week in Cairo’s Tahrir square and other centers.
An opinion poll published in the state-run Al Ahram daily earlier this month placed Ismail at 29 percent, two points behind the leader in that poll, former foreign minister Amr Moussa. The same poll gave Suleiman 8.2 percent. Shater only featured nominally in the poll, which was taken before the Muslim Brotherhood named him as its candidate – controversially reversing its earlier pledge not to compete.
A second and more recent poll, in the independent Al-Masri al-Youm newspaper, produced very different results, with a much greater level of uncertainty among prospective voters – 38 percent declared themselves to be undecided. Nonetheless, Suleiman and Ismail were still among the top-three contenders (20 and 11 percent respectively).
The trio’s forced departure from the race leaves Mubarak regime holdover Moussa as the strongest obvious candidate among the remaining 13, although where the newly freed-up support will go remains unclear.
One likely beneficiary is Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, an Islamist who left the Muslim Brotherhood when he joined the contest since the Brotherhood at that time said it was not participating.
At the time the Al Ahram poll was taken, there was already uncertainty over the candidacy of Ismail, the Salafist cleric, because of the dispute over his mother’s citizenship. The pollsters therefore asked Ismail supporters among respondents for a backup candidate in the event that he was forced out. Thirty-two percent said they would in that case support Fotouh and 29 percent said they would move to Moussa.
Also unclear is how the Muslim Brotherhood will now fare. When it put forward Shater as its candidate, it also named an alternative candidate, Mohammad Mursi, who heads the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. The FJP and a Salafist party already dominate Egypt’s new parliament.
While Brotherhood and Salafist supporters are criticizing their candidates’ disqualifications, the removal of Suleiman is being welcomed in those quarters. Islamists opposed his candidacy, and last week pushed through parliament a law designed to prevent anyone who had served in the Mubarak regime in the last 10 years from running.
If approved by the ruling military council, the law threatened the candidacies of both Suleiman and another contender, Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who served briefly as Mubarak’s last prime minister.
It would not, however, affect Moussa, even though he was Mubarak’s foreign minister for a decade. His tenure in that post ended 11 years ago, following which he served as secretary-general of the Arab League until last June.
The elections are scheduled for May 23 and 24, with a run-off in June in the event that no candidate receives 50 percent of the votes. The military council has pledged to hand over power to an elected president by the end of June.