CAIRO — Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's longtime spy chief officially joined the country's crowded presidential race Saturday, billing himself as a counterweight to influential Islamist candidates.
Omar Suleiman, Egypt's head of intelligence for more than 18 years, filed his candidacy papers to the Higher Presidential Elections Committee, which was heavily guarded by riot police, military police and elite guards as he arrived.
Mubarak had appointed Suleiman as his first-ever vice president last year in a desperate act to save his crumbling regime two weeks before his ouster in a popular uprising. Suleiman was known as a reclusive member of the old government, and is perhaps best remembered for his somber televised announcement of Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11, 2011.
Suleiman still enjoys some support among Egyptians who, especially in light of the tumultuous post-Mubarak transition, view him as a symbol of stability and moderation, especially when contrasted with some of the unfamiliar, conservative Islamists who've joined the race.
"Suleiman is the right president for this critical period. He has the experience and political intelligence we badly need," Hossam el Shaer, head of Egypt's Chamber of Tourism Companies, was quoted as saying in Egyptian news reports. Tourism workers are terrified that an Islamist win would further devastate their lucrative industry, which has yet to recover from the uprising.
Shaer vowed to "encourage the tourism sector to support Suleiman against the Islamist candidates who use religion to win people's hearts," according to the reports.
Suleiman, however, is despised by Egypt's revolutionaries, including Islamists, who comprise the most powerful political blocs.
Egypt's right-wing Islamic Group, which endorses several political parties with ultraconservative ideologies, said in a statement that Suleiman's candidacy was "the reproduction of Mubarak's regime."
"There are tendencies to eliminate all Islamist candidates for mysterious legal reasons," the statement continued, referring to the election officials' ruling to exclude the popular Salafist candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail over his mother's U.S. citizenship.
The group warned of "catastrophic consequences" if election officers were found to be "forging the truth" or acting without transparency.
Liberals, meanwhile, were just as harsh in their criticism of Suleiman's entry into the race. The 100 Panel, an independent grouping of pro-revolution political and community figures, said his candidacy "exposes the secrets of a conspiracy against the revolution."
The statement added that, "the candidacy of members of the former regime and the elimination of revolutionary hopefuls is a sign of the increasing dangers threatening the revolution and the presidential elections."
The official candidacy of Suleiman, 74, coincided with the election committee's confirmation that Ismail, the prominent Islamist candidate, was disqualified because he didn't meet the constitutional criteria of having two Egyptian parents.
Judge Farouk Sultan, head of the committee, said the panel had received two letters from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry that confirms that Ismail's mother was a naturalized American. One was a message from the State Department affirming that Nawal Abdel Aziz Nour, the candidate's mother, was granted U.S. citizenship on Oct. 25, 2006. The other document was a copy of her citizenship application, Sultan said.
Sultan's announcement comes after weeks of denial from Abu Ismail and his campaign that his mother carried any citizenship other than Egyptian.
On Saturday night, he addressed the matter from the same Cairo mosque where he holds his weekly religious sermons.
"My mother is not an American citizen, and I still believe that this is forgery. I consider the U.S. State Department's response a forgery," Abu Ismail said, to the cheers of hundreds of supporters.
Abu Ismail accused the United States of manipulating the results of Egypt's presidential race: "The significant speed of correspondence between Egypt and the U.S. confirms that America is keen on setting the fate for Egypt's presidential post."
Like those who suggested a violent outcome should an ex-regime figure such as Suleiman become president, Abu Ismail also warned in no uncertain terms that his disbarment from the race would bring retaliation.
"I warn against this plan to exclude me," he said. "It will have horrible consequences and will never be peaceful."
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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