CAIRO — An ultraconservative Islamist group on Saturday put forward a fundamentalist cleric as its candidate in Egypt's upcoming presidential elections after reports surfaced that a leading Islamist candidate currently in the race may be disqualified.
The Gamaa Islamiya, or Islamic Group, said it has selected Safwat Hegazy, a prominent imam who preaches on television and who took part in last year's protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
While Hegazy's views have won him many supporters in Egypt, they have proven too extreme for some in the West. Last month France barred him from entering the country for an Islamic conference along with a number of other high-profile Muslim clerics on the grounds that they "call for hatred and violence."
The Gamaa Islamiya was a militant organization that fought Mubarak's regime in a bloody insurgency in the 1990s, seeking to establish an Islamic state. It has since renounced violence. Their newly-formed Construction and Development Party has 18 seats total in both houses of parliament.
The group's leader, Abdel-Akher Hamad, said Hegazy was chosen as their candidate because he is a well-known cleric who supports the application of Islamic law.
"For us, he is a pillar of understanding and not an extremist," Hamad said.
The party said Hegazy has accepted their request he run for president. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
Hegazy's name was put forward one day before the deadline for submitting applications to run for president. He will have to get the backing of 30 lawmakers or 30,000 signatures by Sunday evening.
According to Hamad, the last minute decision to support Hegazy was spurred by fears that another ultraconservative candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, could be disqualified from running after Egypt's election commission said Saturday that his mother was a U.S. citizen.
A law put in place after Mubarak's fall stipulates that a candidate, as well as their spouse and parents, may not have any other citizenship than Egyptian.
Speaking to hundreds in a crowded mosque Saturday, Abu Ismail said he has proof his mother was not a U.S. citizen and called the allegations a "plot" against him.
Hamad said Islamists fear that the ruling military council, which took power after Mubarak's ouster, is seeking to discredit not only Abu Ismail but also other leading Islamist contenders, such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Khairat el-Shater and reform-minded Islamist independent candidate Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh as well.
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"It is clear that there is some kind of agreement between the military council and the election committee before any Islamists even put forward their name to try and disqualify them one by one," Hamad said.
Others who have expressed interest in running for president and hoping to court the non-Islamist votes are Mubarak's ex-deputy and longtime spy chief Omar Suleiman and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
An election win by an Islamist candidate would mirror Egypt's recent parliamentary elections, where the Brotherhood won nearly half of the seats in parliament and the Salafi Al-Nour party finished second with a quarter of the seats.