Egypt panel upholds decision to bar key presidential candidates

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

Egypt's election commission Tuesday upheld its decision 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, an anti-Western ultraconservative 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 fear that Islamists may ignite street protests to upset the nation's transition to democracy after last year's toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.

Ismail and hundreds of his backers held a sit-in Tuesday night outside the election commission's headquarters, chanting "God is great." Clerics called for calm amid scuffles with police. No serious injuries were reported.

"They have decided to end the sit-in and will start planning for a million-man march on Friday," Gamal Saber, head of Ismail's campaign, announced later. A crowd consisting mostly of young men, however, did not disperse. "We are on the verge of a second revolution," Saber said.

The candidates were expelled from next month's election for personal and technical reasons. Suleiman lacked sufficient 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, although politically motivated by the Mubarak regime, disqualified him.

"They have excluded candidates and the Egyptian street is boiling," Shater told his supporters. "This means that Mubarak's regime is still ruling, and that enemies of the revolution and remnants of Mubarak's regime and whoever is currently running things are working day and night to ruin the revolution."

The candidates' exit from the race comes as nearly 40% of Egyptians remain undecided 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 registered 3.2%, a sign of increasing disenchantment with the Brotherhood, which controls about 50% 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 holdovers from the old government.

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 backup 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 about Suleiman's departure; his candidacy was regarded as an attempt by Mubarak's inner circle to retake power.

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, and Islamists are seeking to broaden the influence of sharia, or Islamic law.

"The Egyptian people succeeded in parliamentary elections by choosing the Islamic background," Shater said. "Now you need to move fast and tell people to support our candidate," Morsi.

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