Egypt will hold its first open presidential election on May 23 and already, the contest has been a roller-coaster ride.
Registration closed on Sunday with new candidates joining the race at the last minute. One popular candidate, though, will likely have to drop out — a casualty of Egypt’s own “birther” controversy.
In a recent poll, Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail ranked in second place, with support among nearly 30 percent voters. Posters of the smiling bearded Islamist sheikh — bearing his slogan “To Live in Dignity” — have blanketed the country.
Abu Ismail, who’s considered an ultra-conservative, supports the adoption of Islamic law and gender segregation — though he has said that these changes should take place gradually. His style is avuncular and populist. He supported the Egyptian revolution from the outset and has been scathingly critical of the ruling generals.
At a weekend rally, Abu Ismail’s supporters spoke glowingly of their candidate.
“With Abu Ismail we will see justice and peace and security," said a nurse named Mariam, who was wearing a full face veil.
Another supporter, a doctor named Mohsen, said Abu Ismail is “the only one who will make Egypt truly independent, beholden to no one.”
That’s a sensitive issue in Egypt. Many here blame the U.S. for Egypt's problems, because of its support of Israel and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Abu Ismail has been consistently critical of what he calls American interference in Egypt.
At a recent event, he spoke critically of the way America provides aid to Egypt.
“The Americans give us what they want, according to their plans. They say we want to change this people’s values, to make them love sexual degenerates, homosexual marriage,” Abu Ismail said. “American aid is according to their plans, not our needs. We don’t get to say what we want. We don’t make the decisions. It’s imposed on us.”
So it was embarrassing, to say the least, when Egypt’s electoral committee said on Saturday that it had proof that Abu Ismail’s late mother had obtained U.S. citizenship. His sister is married to an American and his mother used to pay her extended visits in California. A new Egyptian law disqualifies any presidential candidate whose parents or grandparents held foreign citizenship.
Abu Ismail continues to deny that his mother held a U.S. passport, though the evidence is mounting. He maintains that the allegations are a plot “hatched by internal and external forces.”
His supporters seem to agree.
“Where is the proof?” said a man named Mahmoud in Cairo. “We just want to see the document, the American passport, for example. Where is the proof?”
Mahmoud said he believes the story about Abu Ismail’s mother having U.S. citizenship is — unsurprisingly — an American conspiracy cooked up with help from Egyptian authorities.
It’s too soon to tell how Abu Ismail’s almost-certain disqualification might affect the presidential race. The Muslim Brotherhood’s main financier, Khairat El-Shater, threw his hat in last week. Now Mubarak’s intelligence chief and right-hand-man Omar Suleiman is running as well.
Still, it’s hard to imagine Abu Ismail’s supporters abandoning him that easily. Over the weekend, they flocked to President Obama’s Facebook page, entreating him to put an end to the conspiracy against their candidate.