Egypt: The Presidential Candidate Who Came in from the Cold

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Supporters of Egyptian presidential candidate and former Vice President Omar Suleiman cheer while carrying banners bearing images of him; meanwhile, Suleiman presented recommendation documents to the High Presidential Elections Commission headquarters in Cairo on Sunday, April 8, 2012

The conspiracies are coming true. At least that's how many Egyptians say they feel after a week of political surprises that have upset a list of front runners and shifted expectations for the country's first presidential race since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak last year. The election, slated for May, will mark the first democratic selection of a President in Egypt's history. The country will have a new leader after 30 years of dictatorship under one man.

Hundreds of people, ranging from mechanics to taxi drivers, registered their candidacy for the top post in a process that officially ended on Sunday night. Until last week, polls and media speculation had pinned several Islamists and the former head of the Arab League as favorites. But many Egyptians, accustomed to the opacity of authoritarianism and the conspiracies it promotes, have long predicted that the future President would be a dark-horse candidate, someone, they said, who would burst onto the political stage at the last possible moment.

On Saturday, April 7, Omar Suleiman, the man who spent decades at Mubarak's side as the President's trusted intelligence chief — as well as, briefly, his Vice President during Egypt's uprising last year — threw his hat into the ring.

To some, Suleiman represents a good option. That constituency would be the members of an increasingly desperate population who yearn for political and economic stability and see Suleiman as a tried and true bulwark of security. But the news sparked outrage among youth activists, liberals and Islamists who say a Suleiman win would be tantamount to an annulment of Egypt's fledgling democracy and a return of the fallen regime. "Omar Suleiman was the Vice President at the time that Egyptian young people were killed in the streets," Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, another presidential candidate, told members of the foreign press on Sunday, referring to last year's uprising that left more than 800 protesters dead. "I believe that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] is the one that pushed Omar Suleiman to run."

SCAF, a shadowy group of generals, took the reins of executive power when Mubarak stepped down last year, and rumors of a secret military candidate have swirled in recent months — as have rumors of political wrangling between the military and the country's most powerful political group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the declaration of the former spy chief's candidacy followed closely on the heels of another potentially game-changing announcement last week by the Muslim Brotherhood: its decision to field its own presidential candidate, Khairat al-Shater.

The Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party controls the biggest share of Egypt's parliament, had earlier promised not to run a presidential candidate, but it abruptly reversed course in a move that analysts say reflected shifting tactics in the postuprising struggle for power. Until recently, the Islamist group had focused its attention on garnering power through parliament, says Omar Ashour, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institute in Doha and the director of Middle East studies at Britain's Exeter University. "But they won the legitimacy and not the leverage," he says. "The parliament turned out to be more or less powerless."

Under the continued absolute authority of Egypt's generals, the country's newly elected parliamentarians discovered their decisions carry little weight. Says Ashour: "When they summon a Minister, sometimes they don't even show up." In the meantime, the rising popularity of other prominent Islamists, like the ultraconservative Salafi candidate Hazem Abu Ismail — who Ashour says isn't beholden to the Brotherhood — has further threatened the group's ascent to power. So the Brotherhood, which has said it's striving "to protect the revolution," decided presidential politics was the way to go.

"SCAF looks at that, and they think it's a takeover," says Ashour, adding that the generals view the rise of the Islamists as a threat to their legal immunity and vast economic empire, whereas Suleiman would serve to safeguard it. The former spy chief and retired military general conspicuously avoided criminal charges and legal investigations in the wake of Mubarak's ouster, even as a long list of other Ministers and regime officials came under judicial scrutiny. And his candidacy has affirmed the cynical prediction of many Egyptians that the ex-regime is far from ousted. "He is worse than Mubarak. This man used to do exactly what Mubarak told him to. When Mubarak said, 'Kill the people,' he killed the people, and when Mubarak said, 'Torture the Islamists,' he did that too," alleges Abu Amr, a plumber who joined hundreds at a Cairo mosque Saturday night to rally behind Abu Ismail.

Widely viewed as the most popular Islamist in the race, Abu Ismail is likely to be disqualified by election authorities this week because, they say, his mother was an American. The government also moved to disqualify popular liberal candidate Ayman Nour over a prison sentence he served under Mubarak on charges that he and his supporters have long said were politically motivated. Analysts say the same rules could technically be applied to al-Shater as well, because he served multiple jail terms under Mubarak for his involvement in the then banned Muslim Brotherhood. (Fearing as much, the Brotherhood announced a backup candidate on Sunday.)

There was a bit of push and pull regarding Suleiman as well. The state news agency had earlier said the spy chief would not be running. And then it reversed that report on Friday. The reasons for the initial announcement remain unclear.

"It looks like a comedy," says Gamal Gaber, a Cairo accountant, describing the political scene. Gaber is hardly alone in his exasperation. But for many, the country's latest shift in political prospects affirms their deepening cynicism. Regardless, Ashour says Suleiman's candidacy is a bad sign for the country's transition. "It signals the possibility of rigging, the possibility of fraud. Because to be fair, I don't think Omar Suleiman has a chance without rigging."

— With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani / Cairo