Egypt panel upholds decision to toss key presidential candidates

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CAIRO -- The well-tailored spy and the dueling Islamists are out.

Egypt’s election commission upheld its decision Tuesday to disqualify three key presidential candidates: Omar Suleiman, former intelligence chief and vice president; Khairat Shater, onetime political prisoner and Muslim Brotherhood financier; and Hazem Salah abu Ismail, a populist ultraconservative Salafi preacher.

The outcome was largely expected after the candidates appealed the commission’s Saturday ruling. The saga has further muddled a chaotic presidential race and led to concern that Ismail’s supporters may ignite street protests to upset the nation’s transition to democracy after last year’s toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.

Ismail and scores of his backers began a sit-in Tuesday night outside the election commission’s headquarters in Cairo.


The candidates were expelled from next month’s election for personal and technical reasons. Suleiman lacked 31 authorized signatures on his registration form. Ismail was barred over revelations that his mother became a U.S. citizen before she died. Shater’s convictions on money laundering and terrorism, which, although were politically motivated by the Mubarak regime, disqualified him from running for office.

Their exit from the race comes as nearly 40% of Egyptians have yet to decide on a candidate. In a poll released over the weekend, more than 20% of those who had made up their minds were backing Suleiman. Ismail had 11.7% and Shater’s registered 3.2%, a sign of increasing disenchantment with the Brotherhood, which controls nearly 20% of parliament.

The election ordeal epitomizes the erratic nature of Egyptian politics as the nation has emerged from the overthrow of Mubarak to months of military rule marred by violent protests. Egyptians yearn for new leadership but the rebellion has failed to summon a galvanizing voice and vision. Lacking political savvy and direction, young activists were pushed aside, setting up a battle between Islamists and leftovers from the old regime.

That struggle will go on despite the loss of its most polarizing personalities. The leading contenders now appear to be former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa; Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s back-up candidate and head of its Freedom and Justice Party; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist and former Brotherhood member.

The race will be less colorful but the stakes just as high, especially if Morsi wins, which would give the Brotherhood control over the entire government. Liberals and Islamists were also relieved at Suleiman’s departure; his candidacy was regarded as an attempt by Mubarak’s inner circle to retake the government.

The country’s political contentiousness has also framed the debate over a new constitution. The military rulers are pressing for the constitution to be drafted before the president takes office in June, a timetable criticized as too rushed by liberals. But Mubarak holdovers and the Brotherhood have competing ambitions: The army wants its authority enshrined in the document while Islamists are seeking to broaden the influence of sharia law.


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-- Jeffrey Fleishman