By Hamza Hendawi /AP
CAIRO: Hosni Mubarak’s former spy chief said he decided to run for president to prevent Islamists from turning Egypt into a “religious state,” and warned that the country would be internationally isolated if one of them won the presidency.
Omar Suleiman, who also briefly served as Mubarak’s vice president, said in an interview published Thursday that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood’s fielding of a presidential candidate “horrified” Egyptians. The Islamist group, which has emerged as Egypt’s most powerful political bloc since last year’s uprising, reversed an earlier decision not to field a candidate.
His comments in the weekly El-Fagr newspaper came as the Islamist-dominated parliament debated for a second consecutive day a draft bill that, if adopted, would strip senior members of the Mubarak regime from their political rights, including voting and running for office, for 10 years.
Lawmakers passed the law which, if endorsed by the ruling generals who took over from Mubarak, will disqualify Suleiman from taking part in the May 23-24 election.
The election of a president is the last stage of Egypt’s turbulent transition to democratic rule. The ruling generals have promised to step down by July 1.
In the interview, Suleiman noted that the Brotherhood already controls just under half of parliament’s seats and is the largest single bloc, and warned that the group would control all state institutions if it wins the presidency.
“If Egypt falls under the rule of (Islamist) groups, it will suffer isolation and its people will suffer from the inability to communicate with others,” he said
The Brotherhood and other Islamists enjoy a 70 percent majority in the chamber.
“It is my belief that those who demand that I run, like a majority of this nation’s citizens, are in a predicament and indeed the whole state is in a predicament, especially after the Brotherhood decided to field one of its leaders for the presidency after it pledged not to,” Suleiman, 75, said in the interview.
“That change struck horror in the souls of members of Egyptian society. If the Brotherhood’s candidate wins the presidential election, Egypt will be turned into a religious state. All state institutions will be controlled by the Brotherhood.”
During Mubarak’s three-decade secular presidency, the Brotherhood was subjected to a series of crackdowns that put thousands of its members behind bars. Suleiman himself is known to be a hardline critic of Islamist groups.
“As a citizen I felt fear and horror over the future of my children and grandchildren and found out that my children who had been entirely opposed to the idea of me running demanding that I run so as to bring balance to authorities,” he said of the prospect of a religious state in Egypt.
Suleiman’s aides said they collected in just two days more than 100,000 signatures in support of his candidacy, or nearly four times the 30,000 endorsements needed for him to qualify to run. “I took that miracle to mean a popular mandate and divine facilitation. I am not a dervish, but what happened was truly a miracle.”
After delivering a brief televised address on Feb. 11 last year telling the nation that Mubarak had stepped down, Suleiman disappeared from the public gaze. However, he has retained influence and told El-Fagr that he has since offered “help for Egypt” to the nation’s ruling generals.
The political ban on Mubarak-era officials, according to the draft bill debated in parliament, covers those who served in high-level posts of the former regime — president, vice president, prime minister, head of the ruling party, its secretary general and members of its politburo — at any time during the 10 years prior to Mubarak’s ouster. Lawmakers debating the draft called for the list to cover members of local councils and Cabinet ministers, as well.
If adopted, the law would disqualify Suleiman and another candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister.
The council of generals that currently rules Egypt must ratify the law for it to go into effect. The generals have yet to say anything publicly on the issue, but it’s unlikely that they would sign off on the law before the election commission issues the final list of candidates later this month.
Government representatives told the legislature on Thursday that the draft law violated the constitution, and Justice Minister Mohamed Attiyah said that no one should be stripped of their political rights without a court order.
Lawmakers countered that the nation remains in a “revolutionary state” that empowers the legislature to make such a law.
Others warned that a Suleiman presidency would mean the imprisonment of lawmakers and what one member of parliament described as the return of Israel’s influence in Egypt. Suleiman frequently visited Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of his duties as Mubarak’s point man on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt has the Arab world’s first and longest standing peace treaty with the Jewish state.
“We are in a state of self-defense, we are defending Egypt and ourselves,” said independent Islamist lawmaker Mahmoud Khodeiri, one of the country’s top legal experts. “Omar Suleiman means Mubarak returns to the palace, and we all go to prison, and these are the lucky ones because others will be sent to the gallows.”
Mubarak is on trial for his life, charged with complicity in the killing of protesters in the uprising that toppled his regime. He was arrested in April last year, but has since been detained in a hospital.
Other presidential candidates are also facing legal challenges, including the Brotherhood’s Khairat Al-Shater and ultraconservative Islamist Hazem Abu Ismail.
Some have challenged Al-Shater’s candidacy on the grounds that he served time in prison in connection with his political activity under Mubarak. He was pardoned by the generals, but his detractors argue that more time must pass before he can run.
On Wednesday, a court ordered authorities to produce evidence of whether the late mother of a leading Islamist candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, had dual Egyptian-US citizenship. A new election law passed after Mubarak’s ouster bars an individual from running if the candidate, the candidate’s spouse or parents hold any citizenship other than Egyptian.
The election commission said last week it had received documents showing that Abu Ismail’s mother was an American citizen but the court’s decision did not settle the question of whether Abu Ismail is eligible to run. Instead, it ordered the Interior Ministry to provide evidence showing whether his mother was officially documented in Egypt as having dual US-Egyptian citizenship.