CAIRO: Three top contenders for Egypt’s presidency were scrambling to stay in the election race after the authorities disqualified them on technical grounds, prompting one to say that a “major crisis” threatened the landmark vote.
The election is seen as the last step to democracy after more than a year of unstable army rule since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by a street revolt. The generals are due to hand power to the new president by July 1 but the latest drama saw new accusations they were trying to prolong their influence.
Mubarak’s former spy chief Omar Suleiman drew an outcry from opponents of the old regime when he entered the race last week, only to be told late on Saturday that he had failed to secure enough signatures in one province to run —31 were missing out of required 1,000 in the southern province of Assiut.
Suleiman, who submitted his papers at the last minute on the April 8 deadline, told the Presidential Election Committee he could present more signed proxies he collected before the deadline but didn’t include that day.
Two leading Islamist candidates were also disqualified, one because he has a criminal record — dating from what was widely seen as a political trial under Mubarak — and the other because his mother had taken US citizenship, state media said.
All three had 48 hours —deadline is Monday — to appeal to the state election committee against their exclusion. If their elimination is confirmed, it would redraw the electoral map just weeks before the vote gets under way in May.
The election commission is expected to decide Tuesday which appeals will be reviewed. A final list of candidates will be released April 26, about a month before the vote.
“We will not give up our right to enter the presidential race,” said Mourad Mohamed Ali, campaign manager for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat Al-Shater, one of the three. “This commission is politicized and we will exert all political pressures to restore our rights.”
“There is an attempt by the old Mubarak regime to hijack the last stage of this transitional period and reproduce the old system of governance.”
Al-Shater sent his lawyer Monday to file an appeal.
A Brotherhood member, lawyer Sobhi Saleh, said on state television: “The legal battle is not over.”
The Brotherhood accused the ruling generals of “stealing” the revolution and robbing people of their right to choose their president.
Ironically, it is the Brotherhood that has been accused of “hijacking” the revolution by the groups that drove the uprising but have been largely sidelined in parliamentary elections and the presidential race.
The disqualifications add to the drama of a transition marked by spasms of violence and bitter political rivalries between Islamists, secular-minded reformists and remnants of the Mubarak order.
Al-Shater, who became an immediate frontrunner after joining the election race in late March, was disqualified due to past criminal convictions. Brotherhood members were often jailed for their political activities under Mubarak, who excluded the movement from formal politics.
Anticipating Al-Shater’s disqualification, the Brotherhood, which now dominates parliament following free elections held in the wake of Mubarak’s removal, had nominated Mohamed Mursi, head of its political party, as a reserve candidate.
Morsi is the leader of the group’s political arm and a close associate of Al-Shater. But he is not considered as strong a candidate as his mentor.
A lawyer for Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the most hardline of the various Islamists running for the post, said there would be “a major crisis” now that his client was barred from the race.
On Friday, his supporters besieged the headquarters of the election commission, forcing it to evacuate the premises and suspend its work. Abu Ismail said the accusation that his mother held US citizenship was fabricated by his political opponents.
“The presidential committee has violated all the rules of law,” Abu Ismail said in remarks published on his Facebook page. “If the official decision is to violate the constitution, they should be able to deal with the consequences.”
Military police and state security were guarding the headquarters of the election committee in Cairo, state media reported.
Abu Ismail is out of the race because his mother holds another nationality, violating election rules which state that all candidates, their parents and their wives must have only Egyptian citizenship.
Last week an Egyptian court obliged the interior ministry to reveal documents pertaining to his mother’s citizenship.
Others who have been disqualified include Ayman Nour, who caught the world’s attention when he challenged Mubarak in 2005 presidential elections.
Nour was imprisoned shortly after those elections and released on health grounds in 2009. He was banned under the same rule as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Shater.
Farouk Sultan, head of the presidential election commission, told Reuters a total of 10 of the 23 candidates had been disqualified. The reason cited by the commission was “because they do not fill one or more of the required conditions.”
Both Suleiman and Abu Ismail filed their appeals Sunday.
Frontrunners still in the race include Amr Moussa, a former Arab League Secretary General and Egyptian foreign minister, and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood last year when he mounted his own presidential campaign.
In an interview with Reuters on Saturday, before his exclusion was announced, Suleiman said the domination of politics by the Brotherhood would hold the country back. But he said if he became president, the party could serve in his government and would be a vital part of Egyptian political life.
Suleiman, 74, said he was running for office in response to public demands for a counterweight to Islamist influence.
“This is why they sought me, as a balance between Islamists and civilian forces,” said Suleiman.
He describes himself as a devout Muslim but said that Egyptians fear their country is being turned into a theocracy.
The Brotherhood, in addition to dominating parliament, chairs an assembly that was formed to write a new constitution before a court suspended its activities last week. Liberal groups had walked out of the assembly, saying it failed to reflect Egypt’s diversity.
“Many people felt that the state is going to the Muslim Brotherhood — in parliament, in government and now the presidency,” Suleiman said, while conceding that the Brotherhood was “a very important segment of Egyptian society.”
With Al-Shater’s elimination, the race has become less polarized, said Emad Gad, a lawmaker from the new Egyptian Social Democratic Party. But the Brotherhood must now compensate for its overreaching for power, he said.
“They must learn the lesson,” Gad said. “They need to reach agreement with many forces, the military council, the civil groups, and restructure the constituent assembly in an acceptable manner. This time, there must be a guarantee from the military council over how the panel is formed.”
There are signs that the Brotherhood is trying to reach a consensus on the panel to write the constitution.
A meeting between the military council and political parties, including the Brotherhood, reached an initial agreement to restructure the panel. They agreed to the demands of secular groups to form the panel solely from members outside of parliament, said Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the head of the ultraconservative Salafi party, who was at the meeting.