CAIRO – Egypt's election commission rejected the appeals of three main contenders for president Tuesday, definitively removing the most polarizing candidates from the race to become the country's first elected leader since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
The disqualification of the three diminishes the chances that an Islamist candidate will win the presidency, but there are worries over the fallout from the decision, particularly from the supporters of one of the barred candidates, ultraconservative Islamist Hazem Abu Ismail.
Around 2,000 Abu Ismail supporters had camped outside the commission's headquarters since the previous day, demanding he be allowed to run. When the rejection was announced Tuesday evening, some of them threw stones at security and briefly scuffled with military police.
The commission's decision removes the top contenders in the race — Mubarak-era strongman Omar Suleiman, Muslim Brotherhood chief strategist Khairat el-Shater and Abu Ismail, a lawyer turned hard-line preacher. The panel had announced their disqualification over the weekend, shocking many in the country. Each appealed the decision but on Tuesday the panel rejected the appeals.
Suleiman was disqualified because he fell short of the required number of public endorsements; el-Shater because of a previous conviction; Abu Ismail because his mother held American citizenship briefly before her death in 2010. According to a new law passed after the uprising, candidates won't qualify if their spouses or parents hold a foreign nationality.
With the three out, the top contenders in the race are seen to be former foreign minister Amr Moussa, moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh and the Brotherhood's backup candidate, Mohammed Morsi. Voting begins May 23-24.
Many have questioned the independence of the commission, holdovers from the Mubarak era appointed to the panel by the country's military rulers.
The presidential elections are the final stage of a turbulent transition, managed by a council of generals who took over from Mubarak. The generals promised to hand over power by end of June after a president is elected.
The writing of the country's new constitution remains an explosive issue. Secular and liberal groups fear an overly Islamist charter, the military wants to preserve its privileged position, and a panel formed by parliament has been suspended.
The generals said over the weekend the constitution should be drafted before a president is elected, raising concern that the elections might be postponed if the document is not ready in time.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner echoed the concerns in comments to reporters Tuesday.
"Our concern is that we want to see a fair and transparent process moving forward and a successful election and handover of power to a civilian government along the time frame that the (military council) has already laid out," he said.
The three hopefuls had been the most polarizing figures in the race. Suleiman raised alarm among many Egyptians because he was a central figure in Mubarak's authoritarian regime, which last year's uprising had sought to uproot. El-Shater raised the fears of liberals who feared a monopoly of power by the Brotherhood, which is already the strongest faction in parliament with nearly 50 percent of seats.
El-Shater told a crowd of his supporters after the decision that his disqualification is a sign that Mubarak's regime is still alive.
"We will not allow the revolution to be stolen from us," he said in a speech aired on the group's TV channel Misr 25. "The enemies of the revolution and the remnants of Mubarak's regime and the authorities that he formed before he left are still here running the country's affairs."
The group said it will participate in a rally this weekend against the military, and el-Shater said it could turn into a sit-in to protest against what he said were attempts by the military to preserve Mubarak-style rule.
The tone shows the increasing tension between the Brotherhood and the ruling generals. The Brotherhood had previously stayed out of anti-military protests organized by the youth groups that led last year's uprising, in the hope that it could turn its political gains under the military-run transition into real power.
"If any party whether (the ruling military) or the election commission or security agencies imagine that using Mubarak's old ways will lead to our defeat or stop us, it is a dream that will not be realized," he said as his supporters chanted, "Down with military rule."
Since Mubarak's fall in February last year, the Brotherhood had promised not to field a candidate. But after realizing the legislature it dominates was powerless in the face of the country's military rulers, the group nominated el-Shater late last month.
The entry of Mubarak's ex-spy chief Suleiman into the race was seen as a response to the Brotherhood's decision. He said he wanted to prevent Egypt from coming under Islamist rule, and his security and intelligence credentials galvanized many of those fearing the Islamists. But his entry also offended the groups behind the uprising and the Brotherhood who saw the return of Mubarak's former regime officials bid as an "offense" to their revolt.
The decision has taken much of the heat out of the race, and could force Islamists to find a consensus candidate to rally behind. The Brotherhood's replacement candidate, Morsi, who is the head of the group's political party, is less known and less powerful than el-Shater.