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The three top contenders in Egypt's upcoming presidential election are appealing a surprise decision by the country's top election authority to ban them and seven others from running in next month's poll. Whether the ban will be lifted on any or all of those candidates could be announced as early as tomorrow. But already there's widespread concern among supporters of the Islamist frontrunners that the decision was nothing more than a ploy to oust their candidates. We join NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo for the latest.
Good to have you, Soraya.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
NEARY: Why, Soraya, did the Egyptian election officials disqualify these candidates?
NELSON: Well, they gave several different reasons, depending on the candidate, but we'll focus on the top three here. The head of the commission said the former Mubarak vice president and intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, didn't have the requisite number of signatures from one area or one region that's south of Cairo that he needed to run.
Then he also said that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified because he had previously served time in prison and not enough time had elapsed since his sentence. Never mind the fact that he was a political prisoner, but that this is the law.
And then also there was a Salafist preacher who was running, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who has a mother with U.S. citizenship. And according to Egyptian law, all presidential candidates and their parents and spouses must hold only Egyptian citizenship, so he was also disqualified.
NEARY: What's really going on behind the scenes here, though? Is the interim military government trying to get a particular result with these decisions?
NELSON: Well, at first many people here felt that the election commission - and its members were appointed by the Mubarak regime, it's important to remember that - it was felt that they were at least trying to be credible and trying to be fair by kicking out the military junta's main candidate, which of course was Omar Suleiman, former spy chief Omar Suleiman. But a lot of suspicions are now rising, because there have been reports in the state media in the last 24 hours that talk about the violation that Suleiman had, perhaps not being so bad, that maybe it was only tens of signatures rather than thousands of signatures. And so there's some thought that perhaps the commission will accept his appeal and put him back in the race.
Adding to that speculation is that the top ruler here, the top military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, met with lawmakers and heads of political parties yesterday and urged them to create a committee that will write the new constitution with no representation from the Islamist-dominated parliament. And Tantawi made it clear that they really want this constitution in place before they hand over power at the end of June.
So I think it's pretty clear at this point that the election seems headed for a showdown between allies of Mubarak and the Islamists.
NEARY: Well, how do you expect the people of Egypt to react if the ban is upheld?
NELSON: Well, the people are not going to be happy if the Islamists are kept out. But I think it'll be much worse if Suleiman is allowed back in - again, the former vice president. The supporters of the Salafist preacher Abu Ismail have said that they will turn out on the streets if he's not allowed to run. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has signaled that they have a standby candidate in the wings.
And so it seems that if Suleiman is allowed back in, there's going to be a much stronger reaction from the Islamists. But if not, at least the Muslim Brotherhood will have another candidate to put forward.
NEARY: Well, if these candidates aren't allowed back in, who will the new frontrunners be?
NELSON: Well, sort of the old frontrunners, if you will. The former secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, is the clear favorite at this stage. Polls say that even with the other three frontrunners, he was quite high up on the list in terms of name recognition and people respecting him.
Another very popular person is a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and moderate Islamist named Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. But the Brotherhood is very concerned about the latter, about Aboul Fotouh actually winning. So they're going to be putting in this guy Mursi, as I mentioned, as a backup candidate if their original candidate isn't allowed to run. So that could split up the vote.
NEARY: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo.
Thanks for being with us, Soraya.
NELSON: You're welcome, Lynn.
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