CAIRO — Egyptian lawmakers voted Thursday to disqualify presidential candidates who served in senior positions in Hosni Mubarak's government, reflecting the anxiety in political circles over the campaign of Omar Suleiman, the country's longtime spy chief and a CIA ally.
Though the vote still requires the unlikely endorsement of Egypt's ruling military council to take effect, the move was a clear warning to Suleiman that his bid for the presidency would meet obstacles at every step.
Suleiman's opponents are also using street-level pressure to force him from the race, with thousands of Egyptians expected to return to Tahrir Square on Friday to protest what they consider his attempt to steal back the government after a popular uprising toppled the regime last year.
The hand-wringing over Suleiman's last-minute entry into the race raises an uncomfortable prospect for the revolutionaries: that the intelligence czar could prove popular with voters who are fed up with the transition's instability and Islamist domination. However, analysts caution, the race is still wide open, with no up-to-date polling to gauge the breadth of his support.
Coptic Christian groups and some liberals have expressed support for Suleiman as a counter to a possible Islamist takeover. Other voters say they'd choose him because he's a familiar figure whom they believe can restore order in a country that's reeling from a crime wave and disruptive protests since Mubarak's ouster.
"It's the classic game of Omar Suleiman's intelligence department," said the Egyptian novelist Fathy Soliman. "They throw the first stones, and when people look around and say, 'Who's throwing stones?' they step in and tell us, 'Don't worry, we're here to protect you.'"
Opinion is mixed as to whether Suleiman poses a serious challenge to Islamists, whose conservative base is split between two leading candidates: the right-wing Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and the wealthy Muslim Brotherhood financier Khairat el Shater.
Both the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafist movement, who together make up 70 percent of Parliament, are sending their supporters to Tahrir Square, one indication that Suleiman's candidacy has shaken their plans for a smooth path to an Islamist filling Mubarak's vacant seat.
Since announcing his run, Suleiman has made every effort to pitch himself as the anti-Islamist candidate, pandering to fears that Egypt will become a closed-off, hostile nation unless he's at the helm as a buffer against the ascendant religious forces. He's made sure to note that the Muslim Brotherhood already has reneged on its promise not to field a presidential candidate.
"That change struck horror in the souls of members of Egyptian society," Suleiman told the Egyptian newspaper al-Fagr in an interview published Thursday, according to an Associated Press translation. "If the Brotherhood's candidate wins the presidential election, Egypt will be turned into a religious state. All state institutions will be controlled by the Brotherhood."
Suleiman was chief of Egypt's feared intelligence apparatus for nearly two decades and served as Mubarak's vice president in the regime's final days. His terse announcement of Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11, 2011, set off scenes of euphoria among the protesters in Tahrir Square.
Islamists were constantly on Suleiman's radar during his time as intelligence chief, suffering years of persecution and imprisonment in terrorism investigations that critics say were exaggerated to silence opposition to Mubarak or to curry favor with the regime's backers in Washington.
Suleiman's name cropped up in several Egypt-related U.S. diplomatic cables made public by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The correspondence portrays Suleiman as a close ally of the United States and Israel in the fight against Islamist militant groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories. He also was a close partner in the U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition, essentially the outsourcing of torture of terror suspects to friendly nations, according to investigative news reports and books on the subject.
A State Department cable from 2006 said that the intelligence collaboration with Suleiman was "probably the most successful element of the relationship" between the United States and Egypt.
During the 18-day uprising that brought down Mubarak, demonstrators railed against the then-vice president's U.S. ties in chants that took advantage of the rhyming of "Suleiman" and "American."
Right after Suleiman's candidacy was announced, the Islamist-majority legislature began drafting a "political isolation law" to strip former regime figures of the right to vote or run for office for 10 years. The law is primarily symbolic for now — the military council would have to ratify it and the final decision on eligibility rests with Egypt's election commission, which is expected to present a final list of approved candidates by the end of the month.
Although the bill, which lawmakers want applied retroactively so that it covers this year's race, might also disqualify other former-regime hopefuls, there's no question as to the intended target.
"We call it the Omar Suleiman Law," said Mohamed Mashaal, spokesman for Suleiman's campaign. "This is a law that's being designed to fight the general, and it's a war the Parliament has waged against one of Egypt's most prominent figures."
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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