CAIRO – Three of Egypt's main contenders for the presidency filed appeals prior to a Monday deadline against a decision by the country's elections commission barring them from running, a move that rocked an already tumultuous race.
Ultraconservative Islamist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, the more mainstream Islamist Khairat al-Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood, and former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman were knocked out of the race along with seven others on Saturday on legal grounds.
Representatives of all three candidates filed appeals before the deadline. The election commission is expected to decide Tuesday which appeals will be reviewed, and a final list of candidates will be released April 26, just under a month before the vote.
The decision to disqualify the candidates — along with the possibility that it might again be reversed on appeal — has injected massive uncertainty into Egypt's first-ever freely contested presidential elections.
It means that the race is being heavily shaped by administrative decisions from the country's elections commission comprised of judges appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak, which has left many questioning the body's independence and the fairness of the election process.
The commission has not given any reason for its decisions, and its disqualification of two of the top Islamist candidates has brought accusations that it might be manipulated by the country's ruling military council, which has vowed to hand over powers after a president is elected.
Abu Ismail, a lawyer-turned-preacher with a devoted following, was reportedly barred from running because his late mother allegedly held dual American-Egyptian citizenship. Under a new Egyptian electoral law, the candidate, the candidate's spouse or the candidate's parents cannot hold any citizenship other than Egyptian.
Abu Ismail has questioned why the election commission had not made public the documents that allegedly prove his mother held U.S. citizenship.
El-Shater's candidacy had been challenged because of his previous criminal record. He was imprisoned like many Brotherhood activists under the Mubarak regime, but was granted an amnesty this year. His lawyers say that this means he is allowed to run.
Analyst Yousri Ezdawy, of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says the commission "is not acting transparently" and is not being clear about its decisions.
"There is a lack of trust in the system and because of this, no one really understands what is happening," Ezdawy said.
He said the elections commission was likely carrying out orders from the ruling generals that took power after Mubarak's ouster in last year's uprising.
"This is a political move to get Abu Ismail out of the race and to make way for the council's candidate," he said, referring to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Despite their pledge to hand over power, the generals want the defense ministry and their budget out of civilian control. For this they would likely need a pliable candidate.
Ezdawy said the general's candidate was likely Amr Moussa, Mubarak's one-time foreign minister and more recently the secretary general of the Arab League.
But others say the military's preferred candidate is Omar Suleiman, who served as spy chief and vice president under Mubarak, which is why the biggest surprise in the round of disqualifications came when he was barred. He sent his assistant to file an appeal Sunday.
Suleiman's campaign says he was disqualified because of a problem with collecting voter endorsements, which means he has little chance of winning an appeal since he cannot submit new signatures.
After the disqualifications, the front-runners are former regime officials such as Moussa as well as an expelled Brotherhood member, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, seen as a reformist among Islamists.
The Brotherhood also has still has a candidate in the race. The movement nominated the chief of its political party, Mohammed Morsi, as a back-up for el-Shater, anticipating his possible disqualification.