CAIRO — Egypt's presidential electoral commission on Tuesday permanently disqualified 10 candidates, including three front-runners, upending the contest just weeks before the vote and drawing accusations that the pillars of the Hosni Mubarak regime are still firmly in place.
The decision by a panel of Mubarak-era judges was expected to spark protests, especially from hard-line conservative voters angry at the exclusion of their preferred candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, who preaches a puritanical form of Islam. Hundreds of his rowdy devotees gathered at the commission's headquarters Tuesday, chanting "God is great," while security forces surrounded the building.
The other ejected front-runners are the Muslim Brotherhood's top strategist, multimillionaire Khairat el-Shater, and Mubarak's controversial former spy chief and vice president, Omar Suleiman, according to state television.
The panel had announced 10 disqualifications over the weekend, shocking many in the country. The three front-runners and two others appealed the decision but on Tuesday the panel rejected the appeals.
With the disqualification of Abu Ismail and el-Shater, the chances that an Islamist candidate will win the presidency were diminished. Voting is to take place May 23-24.
The move elicited criticism of the generals who have ruled the country since Mubarak's ouster in February 2011 and fueled allegations that they are working to ensure that Egypt's first democratically elected president is someone over whom they will be able to exert influence. The generals have pledged to cede power to a civilian government by June 30.
"This is a purely political, unjustified, illegal decision," said Mourad Mohammed Aly, el-Shater's media adviser.
Among the remaining candidates, the leading contenders are Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief and former foreign minister who has consistently polled on top; Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a progressive Islamist and former member of the Brotherhood; and the Brotherhood's backup candidate, Mohammed Morsi.