CAIRO – The last prime minister of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak has squeezed back into Egypt’s presidential race after an 11th-hour reprieve by the state election committee, the latest twist in a turbulent build-up to next month’s vote.
Ahmed Shafiq’s reinstatement comes just two days after he was excluded under a law passed by the Islamist-led parliament stripping political rights from top Mubarak-era figures.
Shafiq appealed and the committee reversed itself late on Wednesday, drawing a rebuke from the Muslim Brotherhood which dominates parliament and championed the law. The committee was to announce the final candidate list later on Thursday.
Chronic confusion over who can run for president underlines the fragility of a democratic transition in the Arab world’s most populous country and raises questions over the military’s willingness to give up power after the formal handover in July.
The change of mind came so late on Wednesday that Shafiq was not on a list of 12 approved candidates that appeared in state newspapers on Thursday, compounding uncertainty in a race punctuated by high-profile disqualifications.
“The committee has accepted his appeal and will add his name to the list based on its decison yesterday (Wednesday),” Shafiq’s lawyer, Shawqi Sayyid, told Reuters.
Egypt’s state news agency said on Wednesday Shafiq was back in the race, citing an election committee official.
Shafiq is a strong contender because of his links to the ruling generals and could appeal to some Egyptians who see a man with military experience as their best hope for an end to the political turmoil since Mubarak’s overthrow
His re-entry could split the anti-Islamist vote, making it a tougher race for Amr Moussa, a liberal who was head of the Arab League, as well as a former foreign minister under Mubarak. Ministers were not among those targeted under the new law.
It will also anger Islamists and pro-democracy groups who fear Shafiq’s candidacy is a ploy by old regime figures who want to restore the tightly-controlled politics of the Mubarak era.
Islamists and other groups have called for a demonstration on Friday called “Saving the Revolution”, which is expected to focus anger at the army and those like Shafiq viewed as trying revive the political fortunes of Mubarak’s allies.
The electoral committee decided to refer the law that was used to disqualify Shafiq to the Supreme Constitutional Court to review its constitutionality.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said the committee must simply apply the law and its decision to bring back Shafiq had dealt a blow to its credibility.
“Its behaviour is clearly characterised by confusion: today no, tomorrow, yes, and the truth is this shakes its status and its position as a neutral committee,” Ghozlan told Reuters. “It has a law and it is obliged to apply it and it is not its business to examine whether or not it is constitutional.”
The vote is set for May 23 and 24, with a run-off scheduled in June for the top two candidates. No one is expected to win more than 50 percent of the votes to win in the first round.
Some opinion polls have put Moussa in the lead, although that was in late March. Several candidates have emerged since then and some have been disqualified, including Mubarak’s former spy chief, as well as the first-choice Brotherhood candidate.
Other front-runners include the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, who had been held in reserve, and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an ex-Brotherhood member who is trying to project a broader appeal.
Shafiq said in February he would run for president because he had the experience to maintain good ties with the generals and ensure a smooth handover to civilian rule.
The 71-year-old, an ex-air force commander who was civil aviation minister for a decade, said he can bridge the divisions in Egypt. The country has been led by army officers since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.
A popular Salafi sheikh was also barred last week from the vote and remaining Islamist contenders, including the Brotherhood’s Mursi, are wooing his supporters.
The voting intentions of Salafis, ultra-conservative Muslims whose main party came second behind the Brotherhood’s party in the parliamentary vote, appeared divided. Their votes could prove crucial in determining if an Islamist wins and who it is.
An influential religious body whose decisions are respected by many Salafis and other Islamists said on Wednesday that it was backing Mursi.
“The Religious Authority for Rights and Reform announces its full support for Mohamed Mursi and appeals to all national and Islamic forces to announce their support for him as well to unite the word, strengthen the revolution’s march and to achieve the renaissance project,” it said.
But the main Salafi al-Nour party has said it may back a moderate Islamist candidate.
“I consider this announcement of its decision in this timing and in this way is a departure from the consensus initiative adopted by the Salafi call and is going ahead of the efforts to agree on one Islamist candidate.” said Mohamed Nour spokesman of al-Nour in a statement.
Another leading Salafi group has yet to pronounce, but has been meeting leading candidates in recent days.