Egypt’s former spy chief Omar Suleiman is to contest next month’s presidential election, the official MENA news agency reported on Friday, after having ruled himself out of the race as thousands of supporters of a Salafi leader demonstrated against what they call a plot to stop him from contesting the presidential election.
His change of mind came after a group of demonstrators had gathered in a Cairo district to urge Suleiman, who served as Hosni Mubarak’s vice president before the strongman’s overthrow last year, to run.
“The call you issued today was an order, and I am a soldier who has never in my life disobeyed an order ... I cannot but reply to the call and join the race,” he said in a statement carried by MENA.
Suleiman, 74, was Mubarak’s close associate for decades and served as his vice president briefly during the uprising that forced him to step down a year ago.
Suleiman had said on Wednesday that he would sit out the May 23-24 election because the nomination procedures were too tough, according to AFP.
“I tried until yesterday morning to overcome the obstacles related to the current situation and the administrative, financial and organizational demands of candidacy, but I found that was beyond my capability,” he said.
Candidates bidding for the presidency need 30,000 signatures from people or the support of a party in parliament.
Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of Egyptian Salafi Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail demonstrated on Friday against what they call an official plot to stop the ultraconservative sheikh contesting the presidential election, Reuters reported.
Abu Ismail has emerged as one of the frontrunners for the first presidential vote since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year, but the electoral commission said on Thursday it was checking information his mother had a U.S. passport -- potentially disqualifying him.
The populist sheikh’s followers accuse Western countries and Egypt’s ruling generals, worried by his push to impose Sharia (Islamic law), of trying to eliminate him from next month’s ballot.
“The people want the application of the Sharia,” thousands chanted as they gathered under the blistering sun in Cairo to protest against the suggestion that Abu Ismail could be ineligible.
An opinion poll had tipped Abu Ismail for second place in the ballot and analysts think his growing popularity also helped encourage the more pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood to field a candidate after earlier saying it would not.
“Abu Ismail is the man most fit for the job,” said Salah al-Saed, a 21-year old university student, as he held up a banner of the smiling candidate In Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“My faith in him has not and will not be shaken by these false lies.”
Some banners called for the hanging of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling council, if the council attempted to “forge” the results of the election.
Under Egypt’s election rules, both a candidate’s parents must be Egyptian and with no dual citizenship. The electoral commission said it awaited information from the foreign ministry before Abu Ismail's registration could be confirmed.
Abu Ismail’s campaign has said it will file a suit against the Interior Ministry because it refused to provide any documents on his mother’s citizenship.
The protesters, some wearing face masks with Abu Ismail’s picture, chanted “She is Egyptian, she is Egyptian” and “Hazem! Hazem! We want Hazem!”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, millionaire businessman Khairat al-Shater, registered on Thursday. Its grass-roots network ensures that he will be one of the favorites, but could also split the Islamist vote.
The rise of the Islamists is being watched warily in the West, concerned at their influence in the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. But U.S. and other officials have lined up to meet representatives of the Brotherhood.
A constitutional referendum last year introduced the rule that prevents a candidate from having parents with dual citizenship with the support of the Salafis. Now, many of Abu Ismail’s supporters say that rule should be re-written.