CAIRO — After more than a year out of the spotlight, former spy chief Omar Suleiman stormed back into the public eye this month by entering Egypt’s presidential race. His campaign shelled out cash and went on a major public relations offensive to recast Suleiman — whose name is associated with torture and iron-fisted rule in the minds of many Egyptians — as a compassionate leader who would restore stability.
But now Suleiman is fighting to stay in the race after he and two leading Islamist contenders were among 10 candidates ejected from the contest on Saturday, increasing tension just weeks before the vote, the first presidential election since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
The disqualified candidates, including an ultra-conservative Islamic preacher, Hazem Abu Ismail, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s top strategist, Khairat el-Shater, had until Monday night to appeal the decision. Suleiman, Abu Ismail and Shater all did, and a final list of candidates is due to be released April 26.
Suleiman’s critics have celebrated his disqualification.
“This is good news for human rights,” said Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied torture in Egypt carried out under Suleiman’s intelligence service. “His abusive record would mean he’d rely on similar abusive practices if he were president. It would be a regression even from the time of Mubarak.”
Suleiman’s candidacy was voided because he apparently lacked the requisite number of signatures to be included on the ballot. But already, there have been whispers that his candidacy will be restored by the commission, which is made up of Mubarak-appointed judges.
Suleiman has presented himself as a bulwark against the rise of Islamism, using Mubarak-era language to portray the once-repressed and now-ascendant Muslim Brotherhood as frightening and detrimental to Egypt.
His campaign has the backing of wealthy businessmen and former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which is now defunct. There are also indications that Suleiman has the support of at least some elements of the intelligence service, spawning fears among Egyptians that he could use his connections to propel himself to the presidency and bring back an autocratic government.
But Egypt’s security establishment might not be united behind Suleiman.
Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo, said Suleiman’s disqualification brings into sharp focus the rift between the former spy chief and the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Fahmy, a critic of Suleiman, blamed the military rulers for failing to manage the difficult transition to civilian rule and expressed concern that there could be a violent public reaction if the three front-runners remain disqualified.
“We are witnessing a serious crisis,” Fahmy said, adding that there could be large protests Friday if the three major candidates are not restored to the ballot. “The Egyptian state has effectively collapsed, so taking to the streets now is out of desperation. There’s nothing left to destroy.”
Suleiman’s campaign has continued to press its case, despite the disqualification.
Egyptian journalists said members of the campaign have offered them cash for positive coverage, a Mubarak-esque PR strategy. One newspaper journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said he was offered 7,000 Egyptian pounds a month, or about $1,160, for positive stories but refused to take the money.
Campaign spokeswoman Reem Mamdouh denied the allegations.
State newspapers, once mouthpieces for Mubarak’s government, appear to be rallying behind the 75-year-old Suleiman. One, Al-Ahram, recently reported that “patriotic men and women” have been lobbying hard for him for 14 months as the “man most adequate to rule the country during this difficult time.”
In Egyptian media interviews, Suleiman has painted himself as a reluctant candidate responding to pleas from a nation weary of protests, fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy and sick of rising crime rates.
“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 said in an interview published Thursday in the al-Fagr newspaper.
The Muslim Brotherhood has a backup candidate in case Shater is disqualified.
Suleiman, a gangly man with a wry smile and a thin mustache, became Egypt’s intelligence chief in 1993. He was largely in the shadows until Mubarak appointed him vice president in the midst of the Egyptian revolution last year.
According to State Department documents made public by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, he was a key partner for the CIA and the point man in Egypt on extraordinary rendition, the process by which the United States turned over detainees to other countries, some of which used torture as part of their interrogations.
“Our intelligence collaboration with Omar [Suleiman] is now probably the most successful element of the relationship,” according to a 2006 diplomatic cable.
Suleiman is also seen as a key ally for Israel, and some Israeli lawmakers have welcomed his candidacy.
Although most analysts believe that he is unlikely to win the election, even if his candidacy is reinstated, he would be expected to make a strong showing among several key groups, including Coptic Christians, retired military officers and Egyptians who are tired of the instability since Mubarak’s ouster.
In the northeastern Cairo neighborhood of Abbassiya, Hosni Yousef Surial, 62, stood outside his shop shaking his head as a young doctor explained that the time for secular politicians who oppress people is over and that the Islamists should have their chance.
“We don’t want the Muslim Brothers or Salafists,” Surial said. His real estate business is dead, the photocopy shop he owns is making no money, and he has employees he can barely pay. “The last year has destroyed us economically.”
Special correspondents Ingy Hassieb and Haitham Mohamed contributed to this report.