CAIRO Ten Egyptian presidential candidates, including Hosni Mubarak's spy chief, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and an Islamist preacher, lost appeals on Tuesday against disqualification from the race, shaking the political landscape weeks before the historic vote.
The disqualifications add to the turbulence of a transition to democracy that has been punctuated by spasms of violence and bitter political rivalries between once-banned Islamists, secular-minded reformists and remnants of the Mubarak order.
Among those disqualifications were top Mubarak aide Omar Suleiman, the Brotherhood's Khairat al-Shater and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a popular preacher of the strict Islamist Salafi school.
Their removal from the ballot helps the chances of other Islamists as well as secular liberals in the first free vote for leader of the country of 80 million.
The Brotherhood, the best organized political force in Egypt, is still in the race thanks to its nomination of Mohamed Mursi, the head of the group's political party, as a back-up candidate. The Brotherhood confirmed Mursi would run, and Shater urged his supporters to vote for the 60-year old engineer.
The electoral body had said on Saturday it had disqualified 10 of the 23 candidates who had applied to run in the election, which starts in May and is the climax of the transition from military to civilian rule. Those disqualified had 48 hours to appeal, but all of the appeals were rejected on Tuesday.
Remaining candidates include Amr Moussa - a former secretary general of the Arab League who describes himself as a liberal nationalist - and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh - part of a moderate reformist wing within the Brotherhood until he was expelled from the group last year because of his decision to run.
Moussa stands to gain from Suleiman's disqualification by shoring up his support base among voters who believe the presidency must go to someone outside the Islamist movement that dominated parliamentary elections.
A crucial question now is how Egyptians who would have voted for Shater and Abu Ismail will cast their votes. With the Brotherhood's electoral machine behind him, Mursi emerges as an immediate front-runner but the disqualifications of Shater and Abu Ismail will also benefit Abol Fotouh.
"He will get many of the votes that were going to go to Shater and Abu Ismail as many will not be convinced by Mursi, who has been away from the Egyptian media in the last period," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political scientist.
ABU ISMAIL, SHATER ANGRY AT DISQUALIFICATIONS
The ultraorthodox Salafi Abu Ismail was ruled out because his mother held U.S. citizenship, though he has fiercely denied this. His blend of hardline Islam and revolutionary zeal has won him an enthusiastic following.
Abu Ismail called for a sit-in outside the offices of the electoral commission in Cairo, where several hundred of his followers began to gather as night fell. Some of them scuffled with military police guarding the building.
"We are exposed to a conspiracy by parties that you cannot imagine. What is happening inside the committee is treachery to create divisions," Abu Ismail told supporters at the building.
Suleiman, Mubarak's deputy in his last days in power, had been ruled out because he had too few of the voter endorsements candidates were required to present. The commission said he had been lacking just 31 endorsements of in one province, Assiut. A spokesman for Suleiman declined to comment until he had been officially notified of the disqualification.
Suleiman's last-minute entry to the race had triggered protests by reformists concerned that his candidacy marked an attempt by remnants of Mubarak's administration to reassert control. The former intelligence chief said he was running to stop a complete Islamist take-over of Egypt. The Islamists took to Tahrir Square last Friday to protest against him.
Shater said his disqualification showed elements of the old guard were still running Egypt.
"Our peaceful struggle until the revolution is complete," said Shater, a millionaire businessman seen as part of the Brotherhood's financial muscle.
He urged his supporters to take part in a Tahrir Square protest on Friday in support of the revolution's aims.
Shater had been disqualified because of a past criminal conviction. Like many other Brotherhood leaders, he had spent time behind bars for his association with a group that was officially outlawed under the Mubarak administration.
The disqualified also include Ayman Nour, a liberal who came a distant second to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election.
The election has a first round of voting on May 23 and 24, and is expected to go to a run-off in June between the top two candidates. The ruling military council is due to hand power to the new president on July 1.
(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan, Ali Abelatti and Ahmed Tolba; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)