CAIRO - Egypt’s powerful spy chief under deposed President Hosni Mubarak roiled the country’s presidential race Friday by announcing his candidacy and presenting himself as the best choice for restoring security and prosperity.
Omar Suleiman’s announcement was widely seen as a game changer in the landmark election scheduled for next month. The prospect of his return to power would have been laughable a year ago, when he vanished from public view after somberly announcing that the country’s longtime autocratic ruler was stepping down.
But much has changed since that afternoon of Feb. 11, 2011. Islamists have thrived in the country’s newly open political system, alarming secular Egyptians and Western nations that would like to see non-Islamists leading Egypt. In addition, a large segment of Egyptian society has come to yearn for the safety and relative prosperity that prevailed until the popular uprising sent the economy into a tailspin and eroded the pillars of the country’s police state.
Suleiman’s candidacy broadens a field of front-runners currently dominated by Islamists. Political analysts said his entry, coming just days after he publicly ruled out a presidential bid, suggests the ruling military council opted to anoint him as a contender, possibly in response to the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to field a candidate and robust support for more hard-line Islamist candidates. It offers Egyptians their clearest choice yet between the old order and the new: a contender who is an old hand of the Mubarak-era security establishment facing off against Islamists who were banned from politics under the government he served.
“It just became a more interesting race, because it has become increasingly clear the regime has not collapsed,’’ said Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo. “This represents the realization that the standoff with Islamists in parliament is very serious to them.’’
Suleiman, a former army general, has remained largely invisible since the final days of Mubarak’s rule, during which he served briefly as vice president. Unlike the ousted president and several of his senior loyalists, Suleiman has not been put on trial, and the ruling military council has shown no sign of wanting to hold him to account for any of the abuses of the old government.
The former spymaster was among Washington’s closest backers in the Middle East in recent years, championing Egypt’s unpopular alliance with neighboring Israel.
The agency he ran played a key role in the rendition of US terrorism suspects, a program in which suspects were secretly flown to countries around the world for interrogation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to leaked diplomatic cables and press reports.
Suleiman announced his decision to run for president in a statement published Friday afternoon on the website of the state-run newspaper al-Ahram. He attributed his decision to a mass show of support at a rally in the Abbasiya district of Cairo earlier in the day.
To get on the ballot for the May 24 vote, Suleiman, 75, must gather 30,000 signatures or secure an endorsement from 30 lawmakers by Sunday, the deadline to register.
The announcement marked the latest surprise in a presidential race that a year ago had just three presumed front-runners: well-known former Egyptian diplomats Amr Moussa and Mohammed ElBaradei; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist.
ElBaradei dropped out, and two prominent Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat el-Shater and Hazem Abu Ismail, who enjoys the support of many in Egypt’s conservative Salafist community, emerged as credible rivals.