CAIRO A move to exclude some of the more divisive contenders from Egypt's presidential election may help moderate candidates seen as better able to forge the consensus many believe can foster a peaceful transition to democracy.
Two prominent Islamists - one a hardline Salafi sheikh, the other the Muslim Brotherhood's official nominee - as well as ousted President Hosni Mubarak's spy chief were battling to stay in the running on Monday as a deadline approached for them to appeal against disqualification by the state election committee.
All three had put their names forward late in the process in a way that reinforced an impression in recent weeks that the shaky temporary consensus of necessity between an increasingly assertive Islamist bloc and the generals ruling Egypt since Mubarak's overthrow 14 months ago was breaking down.
Their exclusion, if confirmed by the election committee on Tuesday, may hand the initiative to less polarizing figures like Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief, and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who was ejected from the Brotherhood after going it alone to seek the presidency.
"The disqualifications of the most controversial candidates would certainly ease tension among political forces," said Mustapha al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University. "The other top candidates have good relations with all those forces."
Though polling is a far from exact science in a nation of 80 million that is new to democracy, one opinion sounding in March - before some of the newly barred candidates were in the field - put Moussa as frontrunner. Much could change in the five weeks left until the first round of voting, but such polls are grounds for Moussa and other centrist figures to take hope.
Mubarak's old head of intelligence Omar Suleiman - a central figure in a security apparatus that spent decades harrying Brotherhood members - entered the election race only last week, vowing to clip the Islamist movement's wings.
Though it has been hard to say what his chances would be with the mass of Egyptians, he said he decided to run because the Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament since elections in December, had reneged on a promise not to seek the presidency by nominating its deputy leader Khairat al-Shater.
Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, whose Salafi brand of Islamism is more radical than that of the Brotherhood, was running second to Moussa in the March poll. He promised strict enforcement of Islamic law, or sharia. His warnings of a plot to derail his candidacy angered thousands of adoring supporters, who besieged the headquarters of the election commission on Friday, forcing it to evacuate the premises and briefly suspend its work.
The committee ruled Abu Ismail out because his late mother had taken U.S. citizenship, something he had repeatedly denied.
"I will fight to the end until righteousness prevails and I will teach (members of the elections commission) a lesson they will never forget," he warned after being disqualified.
The March survey, taken before Suleiman and the Brotherhood's Shater entered the race, put Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in third - another indication of voters' willingness to back familiar names from the old guard. However, many are wary of making firm predictions about the first round on May 23 and 24, or the second-round runoff due in June.
Suleiman and Shater are also appealing their bans.
Shater was told he could not run because of past convictions in military courts but his team said he had been pardoned this month and that the charges had been trumped up anyway as part of a broader campaign to suppress the Brotherhood during the three decades under Mubarak, himself a product of the armed forces.
The Brotherhood has another approved candidate waiting in the wings who would become its new official figurehead in the presidential race if Shater's exclusion is upheld.
The election committee told Suleiman he failed to win enough signatures from supporters in one province in order to run. In his appeal, Suleiman said he had, in fact, secured the 31 signatures he lacked but accidentally failed to submit them in the rush to file his candidacy papers by the April 8 deadline.
SHRINKING MIDDLE GROUND
The military found common ground with the Islamists in the months after Mubarak's overthrow as Egypt was convulsed by street protests led by liberal and left-wing revolutionaries demanding the army hand power to civilians immediately.
Then in November and December the Brotherhood swept a parliamentary election, draining the impetus from the street movement but making the Brotherhood a formidable counter-weight to the generals and their unpopular interim government.
For the Brotherhood, the decision to bid for the presidency stemmed from a conviction that parliament was too weak an instrument to achieve its goals and the army was ignoring parliament's popular mandate.
As the faltering economy pushes Egypt further to the brink of a balance of payments crisis, parliament and the government are at odds over whether to accept an emergency IMF loan.
The army is pressing ahead with its plan to hand power to an elected head of state by the end of June but Egypt still lacks a new constitution to define the rules of its nascent democracy.
Months of constitutional limbo beckon after a court last week suspended the work of an assembly charged with drafting the new document. Liberals had quit the body, saying it was dominated by Islamists and failed to reflect Egypt's diversity.
The head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, urged parties on Sunday to finalize the constitution before the new president is elected so the incoming head of state would at least know what his own political powers were, but the Brotherhood refused to be hurried.
"Tantawi's opinion is just his opinion. Parliament has a six-month window to finalize the constitution according to the constitutional decree," senior Brotherhood lawmaker and parliamentarian Essam el-Erian told Reuters.
If Suleiman's appeal against disqualification fails, his bid may have benefited Moussa, the liberal nationalist and former minister whose association with Mubarak has tarnished his appeal as a champion of Egyptian democracy.
Moussa was almost written off last week when parliament voted to ban from the election race anyone who had served in Mubarak's cabinets in his last 10 years. It removed the ex-ministers from the list minutes later.
Abol Fotouh has distanced himself from the Brotherhood to appeal to more liberal Egyptians and the Coptic Christians who make up around 10 percent of the population.
Campaigning for social justice and a restoration of security, he said he would defend the right of citizens to eat, drink and wear what they want.
Suleiman's candidacy drew thousands of angry Egyptians into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday to demand that the man Mubarak made his vice president in the dying days of his rule quit the election race and return to political obscurity.
For some, his ability to swiftly collect more than 30,000 signatures from eligible voters showed how many Egyptians yearn for a tough law and order figure who can restore stability and start mending the economy.
For others it showed the army and the powerful Interior Ministry were staging a counter-coup to abort Egypt's democratic spring - a view that Saturday's disqualification of Suleiman appeared to contradict.
Leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy said: "It was a positive thing that the supreme presidential election commission excluded some of the names affiliated with the former regime which saves Egypt, the revolution and the people from a crisis."
(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti and Tom Perry; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)