Brotherhood, Spy Chief Exit Egypt’s Presidential Race

Khairat al-Shater and Omar Suleiman are barred from running for president in Egypt.

Khairat al-Shater, Omar Suleiman, we hardly knew ye. The two high-profile contenders in Egypt’s presidential election were disqualified from running by the nation’s electoral commission this week. As a result, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa once again seems likely to clinch the election in May.

Shater was the Muslim Brotherhood’s dream candidate. Despite earlier pledges not to contest the presidency, the Islamists nominated the former businessman and Brotherhood strategist, raising the specter of the movement controlling all of Egypt’s political institutions after the election. It already commands nearly a majority in parliament and dominates a special commission that is tasked with rewriting the Egyptian constitution.

The Brotherhood, the best organized political force in Egypt, is still in the race however. Mohamed Mursi, who heads the group’s political party, will take Shater’s place. He is a less charismatic figure and could cause the Islamist vote to splinter, to Moussa’s benefit.

Shater was disqualified because of a previous conviction. Omar Suleiman, who briefly served as Egypt’s vice president in the dying days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, was barred from running because he fell short of the required number of public endorsements.

Suleiman’s candidacy came as a surprise. It’s hard to think of a man who is more associated with the old regime than Mubarak’s longtime spy chief and deputy. He may have hoped to consolidate the country’s minority secular vote but Moussa seems a more viable candidate given his broad appeal. When he was foreign minister in the 1990s, Moussa fiercely criticized Israel at times — a popular position to take in a country that is 90 percent Muslim and where the people are far more hostile toward the Jewish state than the government and military are.

The army’s role in the election process will be scrutinized by Egyptians and foreign observers in the months to come. The chairman of Egypt’s election commission, judge Farouk Sultan, was a Mubarak appointee with close ties to the old ruling class. But if Suleiman was the establishment’s candidate, why reject him?

Also, there has been speculation that the Brotherhood struck a deal with the army by which the former would be allowed to set domestic policy while the latter continued to conduct defense and foreign policy. Shater’s candidacy would have defied this arrangement, if it was ever in place.

The army insists that it will hand power to the freely elected president July 1 and not have a role in national politics thereafter.

Few expect that the generals will simply surrender their prerogatives and privileges however. The Egyptian army is extremely powerful, with entrenched business interests and a clear stake in preserving the alliance with the United States which provides more than $1 billion in annual military aid.

Islamist hardliner Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who was in second place for the presidency according to opinion polls that were conducted before Shater and Suleiman announced their plans to enter the race, was also disqualified.