Egypt’s first presidential race since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster had a rocky start as Islamists and one of the former regime’s most powerful figures readied for an electoral battle and questions were raised over candidates’ legitimacy.
After a monthlong process, the door for nomination closed yesterday, with Mohamed Mursi, the head of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s long-time intelligence chief and short-lived vice president, entering the race in its final hours.
Suleiman’s candidacy, coupled with the possibility that Brotherhood second-in-command Khairat el-Shater and Salafi hopeful Hazem Abu Ismail may be disqualified, has stirred unease about the country’s fitful push for political transition. As Islamists accuse the government of trying to manipulate the process, secularists worry that the Brotherhood is trying to monopolize power. The recriminations set the stage for a tense run-up to the vote scheduled for May 23 and 24.
“It’s an absolute mess all around,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, in a telephone interview yesterday. “There’s no doubt that the government is manipulating the process and there is a real SCAF-Brotherhood confrontation now,” he said, referring to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
“If Shater and Abu Ismail are disqualified, the elections are not going to be seen as particularly legitimate. That’s the real fear, here,” Hamid said.
A total of 23 candidate have filed to run in the presidential election, the Election Commission said yesterday after deadline for applications, the state-controlled Middle East News Agency reported.
Secularist and other groups have already questioned the legitimacy of parliament and the committee charged with drafting the country’s new constitution. Both bodies are dominated by Islamists. Reports in the local media that el-Shater, a millionaire businessman who was the Brotherhood’s chief financier, and Abu Ismail may be prevented from running have cemented Islamists’ perception that the army is trying to sideline them.
Suleiman’s candidacy has led to another backlash. Wasat Party lawmaker Essam Sultan submitted to the parliament speaker a draft law that would bar a presidential run by anyone who had held the presidency, the vice presidency or a ministerial portfolio during the last half-decade of Mubarak’s regime, the official Middle East News Agency reported. The move appeared directed at the former intelligence chief.
“It’s inconceivable that the new system called for by the people through a revolution will be built by the same people who worked to establish and implement the policies of the previous regime,” Sultan said in a statement issued yesterday with the draft law.
While Suleiman’s decision to run has led to speculation about the military’s intentions, his bid could prove one to contend with, said Hamid.
“Over the past year, the revolution has been tainted and people are increasingly disillusioned,” he said. “This might be the right time for someone from the old regime to come back and say: ‘Well things weren’t that bad under Mubarak. In some ways they were even better.’ Suleiman offers that appeal.”
The disputes muddy Egypt’s political transition at a time when the economy is struggling to recover in the aftermath of last year’s uprising.
Net international reserves fell by more than 50 percent in just 15 months and economic growth slowed to 0.4 percent in the last quarter of 2011. A $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan is still pending amid criticism from the Brotherhood and others over the government’s economic program. The IMF has said it wants consensus among Egypt’s main political groups before it concludes the deal.
Abu Ismail faces possible elimination from the contest after the election commission said yesterday the Egyptian Foreign Ministry had confirmed his mother held U.S. citizenship. Under the current law, that would preclude him from office. “Having a passport is one thing, and having citizenship is another,” Abu Ismail said in a televised press conference after denying the claims.
Mursi’s nomination by the Brotherhood was a response to attempts to “fabricate barriers and hurdles” to impede some candidates from competing in the election, the group said in a statement posted on its website.
Television footage showed hundreds of people gathered outside the electoral commission’s headquarters in a show of support for their respective candidate on the final day of the nomination process.
An unusually high military police turnout was also evident, though MENA cited an unidentified military official as saying the military police at the scene kept their distance from the candidates. The official said the units were deployed after supporters of Abu Ismail and el-Shater blocked traffic in the area.
As the dispute over the two leading Islamist candidates continued, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Group -- which had waged a violent battle against Mubarak’s regime in the 1990s -- said it was fielding fundamentalist cleric Safwat Hegazy, also as a precautionary move.
Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League and foreign minister, ranked top in a presidential opinion poll conducted by Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies published April 2, before Suleiman and other candidates had entered the race.
The election commission will notify those who failed to qualify on April 12 and 13, and they will have the right to appeal, MENA reported.