Egyptian election officials upheld their ban of nearly half of the presidential candidates running in next month's contest. Among them are two leading Islamist candidates and the intelligence chief for former President Hosni Mubarak. The decision radically alters the race for a post that will shape Egypt's political landscape.
Minutes after official news outlets announced the election commission ruling, candidate Hazem Abu Ismail took to the airwaves to denounce it as a conspiracy.
The popular hard-line cleric warned people not to trust the commission that ousted him. He accused its members of spreading rumors and trying to divide the Islamist community.
Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater were equally blistering. In a phone interview, campaign spokesman Yehia Hamed said the ruling proves Mubarak's regime remains firmly in charge in Egypt.
"It's not fair at all to have someone like Mr. Shater, who has been imprisoned unfairly for 12 years in Mubarak's time and to be ousted without any legal stand on it," Hamed said. "We have already submitted many documents that prove that our legal position is secured 100 percent."
Even the campaign of Mubarak's spy chief, Omar Suleiman, claims the commission judges — who were appointed by the former president — have a political agenda.
The judges say they disqualified Suleiman because he was short 31 voter signatures affirming his candidacy.
Campaign manager Samuel el-Ashay says Suleiman won't give up. They plan to file a lawsuit to try to overturn the ban.
Supporters for Salafist cleric Abu Ismail, meanwhile, are calling for protests. His lawyer and campaign spokesman Ayman Elias says they are also considering legal action, given that their earlier court challenge against the commission about the evidence disqualifying him was upheld.
Abu Ismail was banned because officials declared that his mother holds dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship. Elias argues that the commission never produced the actual documents proving Ismail's mother was a naturalized American citizen.
Nevertheless, it's unlikely any court challenges will prevail, given that the ruling generals have deemed commission decisions to be final.
That's why the Muslim Brotherhood has opted for a backup candidate: Mohammed Mursi, who heads the movement's Freedom and Justice Party, which holds nearly half the seats in Parliament.
But he faces stiff competition from former Brotherhood icon Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh. His moderate stance makes him popular with many secular and liberal Egyptians.
Recent polls show former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa is also a top contender. He has wide name recognition here and vast political experience, which revolution-weary Egyptians believe is necessary to put their country back on track.