CAIRO // Three of Egypt's most prominent and polarising presidential candidates were rushing yesterday to appeal against a surprise decision to disqualify them from the race.
If the decision by the Supreme Presidential Election Commission (Spec) on Saturday night holds, it would significantly change the political landscape a little more than a month before Egyptians go to the polls.
Among 10 candidates barred from the race were three front-runners: Khairat Al Shater, the former deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood; Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak's intelligence chief and vice president; and Hazem Abu Ismail, a Salafist lawyer turned preacher. They have until today to appeal.
Mr Al Shater, who submitted his campaign paperwork in the final days of the registration period, was disqualified because of a criminal conviction for money laundering.
He has claimed the charges were a political tool of the Mubarak regime to suppress dissent and that he was officially pardoned by Scaf, the group of generals who took control after Mubarak resigned last year.
Escalating the rhetoric over the battle for power in Egypt, Mr Al Shater said yesterday: "We are ready and willing to pay an even greater price for liberation of this homeland and to combat and prevent gangs of old-guard cronies from replicating the corrupt system of governance."
Candidates had three options for registering: 30,000 signatories from across the country with at least 1,000 from 15 different provinces, nomination from a political party in parliament, or signatures of 30 members of parliament.
Mr Suleiman's paperwork did not meet the numerical requirement in one province, the commission ruled. His team gathered 49,000 signatures in 15 provinces, but the commission said he had 1,000 votes too few in one province.
Mr Abu Ismail was barred because his mother, now deceased, had obtained US citizenship, which contravenes laws requiring both parents of a presidential candidate to be Egyptian. If the disqualifications are not overturned, voters will have 13 candidates to choose from. On April 26, the full list of candidates will be revealed by the election commission.
The sudden turn of events provided a boost to the campaigns of Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the moderate Islamist scholar; and Mohamed Morsy, the backup candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood and chairman of its Freedom and Justice Party.
"If the appeals are unsuccessful, these three men stand a chance in the elections," said H A Hellyer, an independent analyst in Cairo. "My estimate is that Amr Moussa would become the front-runner because of his name recognition. Morsi has the grassroots organisational support of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Aboul Fotouh's network is growing, which may result in splitting a portion of votes away from Morsi and maybe Moussa."
Mr Moussa was the leading candidate even after Mr Al Shater and Mr Suleiman announced their candidacies, according to a poll of 1,200 Egyptians between March 31 and April 3 conducted by Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Of respondents who had already made up their minds about whom to vote for, 30.7 per cent chose Mr Moussa.
But the final vote is anything but decided, said Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies in Washington, DC. As much as half of the population is still undecided and voters consider economic development and job creation more important than ideology, according to the centre's polls.
"When you have such a large group of people who haven't made up their minds, they are going to be much more susceptible to last-minute decision-making," she said. "The majority of people, more than 90 per cent, want to take part in this historic event, but you will see some unexpected dynamics up to and on the day of the elections."
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi met the heads of political parties yesterday to discuss the political developments.
The election disqualifications are the latest tangle in the transition of power from Scaf to a civilian government.
A committee to rewrite the constitution was suspended last week by an administrative court, which is examining whether the parliament's process for choosing the 100 members was legal.
The committee had already been paralysed after more than 20 members refused to take part because of what they called the attempt by Islamist political groups to pack the committee with its own members and people sympathetic to their views.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who was a contender for the presidency before bowing out in January, described the situation yesterday on his Twitter page as a "botched transition: vacillating between revolutionary and constitutional legitimacy".
"Meaningful dialogue [is] key to avoid increasing chaos and violence," he wrote.