Egypt presidential race narrowed to 13 candidates

Egypt's presidential race is boiling down to a contest between Hosni Mubarak's former foreign minister and two Islamists with strong bases of support after the election commission released the final list of 13 candidates on Thursday.

In the past few weeks, the commission disqualified 10 of the 23 hopefuls who had initially registered for the May 23-24 elections. Those 10 included Mubarak's former spy chief Omar Suleiman, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood's first-choice candidate Khairat el-Shater and ultraconservative Islamist Hazem Abu Ismail.

After a turbulent, 14-month transition led by the ruling military council that took over for Mubarak, none of the front-runners represents the largely liberal and secular youth who drove the uprising that ousted the former regime in February 2011. And with a Mubarak-era figure and two Islamists dominating, the hopes for a truly representative and democratic government are dimming fast.

The three front-runners are Mubarak's longtime foreign minister and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa; Mohammed Morsi, the second-choice candidate of the nation's most powerful political group, the Muslim Brotherhood; and moderate Islamist candidate Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, who defected from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The list of qualifying candidates also included Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak. He was disqualified, then reinstated over a 24-hour period this week.

Unlike Shafiq whose association with his longtime friend Mubarak has left him stained in the eyes of many Egyptians, Moussa has distanced himself from the old regime and gained acceptance from some liberal and secular factions.

Moussa quit the foreign ministry in 2001, before corruption and police brutality became hallmarks of the regime during its last decade in power. During his 10 years as Arab League chief, he occasionally raised the need for reform in the Arab world and was among those raising their voices against authoritarian rule in the region as the wave of revolutions began in Tunisia.

However, Moussa's public comments on Egypt's ruling generals have been cautious. He has argued, for example, that they should not be prosecuted for the alleged crimes they committed while in power.

The presidential race has been a source of confusion for many Egyptians and only deepened the political uncertainty that has defined the transition from Mubarak's 29-year regime.

The disqualification of some presidential hopefuls led to court cases and in some cases, street protests. Parliament also hurriedly adopted a law that sought to strip senior Mubarak regime figures from their political rights for 10 years.

The question of who should be eligible to run has dominated the national conversation, with liberals and Islamists opposed to Mubarak-era figures running, while the liberals along with leftists and minority Christians alarmed that an Islamist president would hand the fundamentalists a firm grip on the mainly Muslim nation after they swept recent parliamentary elections.

The generals who took power in Egypt when Mubarak stepped down have promised to hand over power to a civilian administration by July 1, ending a transition period marred by the use by troops and police of deadly force against pro-democracy protesters, a sharp rise in violent crime and a worsening economic crisis.

If none of the 13 candidates wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, a runoff will be held June 16-17 between the two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round. A winner will be declared on June 21.

The disqualification of ultraconservative Islamist candidate Abu Ismail on the grounds that his late mother had dual Egyptian-American citizenship — a violation of eligibility rules — sent thousands of his supporters out on the streets to protest the commission's decision. He also took his case to court, but the eagerly awaited verdict did not resolve the crisis over his eligibility.

Adding to the confusion was the commission's reluctance to publicly speak on the issue, something that fueled the street protests by Abu Ismail's ardent supporters.

The election commission chairman, Farouq Sultan, told a news conference Thursday that he intended to refer to criminal investigators some of the 10 disqualified hopefuls because their applications contained material that broke the law. He did not elaborate, but it is widely suspected that the 30,000 signatures collected and submitted by some independent applicants included forged ones.

Independent candidates are obliged under the election law to collect 30,000 endorsements from Egyptians in at least 15 of Egypt's 18 provinces as part of the requirements to run.