Middle East

Egypt election bans threaten fresh political turmoil

Poster showing half the face of Omar Suleiman and half the face of Hosni Mubarak
Image caption There have been demonstrations against the candidacy of former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman

Egypt's troubled transition to possible democracy has been thrown into further turmoil, after nearly half of the candidates were disqualified by the electoral commission.

Those prevented from standing include the former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat al-Shater, and the candidate of the hardline Islamists, the Salafists, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.

On the face of it, the electoral commission has applied, even-handedly, the very restrictive laws on qualifying to run for president.

But supporters of the two Islamist candidates who have been ruled out see it very differently. They suspect a plot to bring back the former regime of Hosni Mubarak.

It is a suspicion heightened by strong hints that Omar Suleiman, who was President Mubarak's loyal lieutenant, could soon be reinstated onto the ballot.

There is also deep unease about the impartiality of the electoral commission.

The head of the electoral commission, Farouk Sultan, is a former army officer and judge in the military court system, and the Muslim Brotherhood have said all his fellow judges on the commission are sympathisers with the old regime.

The law bans any appeal from the final decision of the electoral commission.

Ruling backlash

Khairat al-Shater, in a speech following the announcement of the electoral commission's ruling, warned that his supporters would take to the streets if what he called remnants of the former regime win the presidency.

Image caption The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat al-Shater is appealing against his disqualification

"If toppling the former regime cost 1,200 martyrs, it will cost many thousands more to reproduce it," he said. His officials have stressed that he was not threatening a "Jihad" or armed struggle.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail has also said he will not accept the ruling. His supporters have already staged a series of noisy demonstrations, and he has threatened to reveal secrets about corruption in the government.

As for Omar Suleiman, he has suspended his campaign. It appears his nomination has been rejected on a very narrow technical basis - problems with just 30 of the 30,000 endorsements needed to get him on the ballot paper.

His campaign has already supplied new documentation to the electoral commission, and a senior official from Mr Suleiman's campaign has said that the appeal against disqualification has been initially accepted.

By contrast, Mr Shater was ruled out on the grounds that he has served time in prison. That is under a law dating from President Mubarak's term in office.

The Muslim Brotherhood candidate argues that his disqualification is entirely political, as he was held as what many would describe as a political prisoner for 12 years under Hosni Mubarak.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail has been disqualified under another provision banning any candidate whose parents have held foreign citizenship.

It is alleged that his, now dead, mother travelled on an American passport. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail has denied this, and challenged the interior ministry to produce documents that show otherwise.

Confrontation fears

The electoral commission has until 26 April to produce a final list of candidates.

Image caption Hazem Salah Abu Ismail has also appealed and has threatened to reveal government corruption

If all the disqualifications stand, the Muslim Brotherhood have a back-up candidate, Mohamed al-Mursi, the leader of their parliamentary party.

However there is some discussion in the Egyptian press of the possibility of the Brotherhood withdrawing him as well.

That seems an unlikely option, but if the Brotherhood fear defeat for their second choice candidate, this might be the moment to make a strategic withdrawal.

As things stand, the former Arab League chief, Amr Moussa, moves back into the position of front-runner.

However an intriguing opinion poll published in al-Ahram newspaper puts Omar Suleiman in the lead, with Amr Moussa in second place, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate way down the list.

The credibility of the poll is open to question. But the fact that it was published in a government-owned paper suggests that Omar Suleiman has strong backing from a section of the ruling elite, though his standing with the ruling military council is still not clear.

What seems certain is that if Omar Suleiman is re-instated, and his Islamist rivals are not, it could spark a major confrontation between the Islamists and the ruling military council, a confrontation that could severely undermine the credibility of what was supposed to be Egypt's first democratic presidential election in thousands of years of history.