The High Election Commission struck down 10 candidates in all, including the three who have generated the most passion in this polarized nation: Khairat el-Shater, the leading strategist of the Muslim Brotherhood; Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Islamist; and Omar Suleiman, Mr. Mubarak’s former vice president and intelligence chief.
A little more than a month before the vote begins, the ruling raised new doubts about the credibility of the election, which is supposed to inaugurate a new democracy after decades of authoritarian rule. It capped a year of opaque decisions behind closed doors, shifting ground rules and timetables, conspiracy theories about who holds true power, turbulence in the streets and growing political polarization during the military-led transition after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
And it comes at a time when the stakes of the presidential race have risen higher than ever: the Islamist majority in Parliament has clashed with the liberal minority over the writing of a constitution and with the military over the control of the government. Some warned it could set off new street protests.
At the same time, the commission, composed of five senior judges appointed by Mr. Mubarak, appeared to prove its independence, shutting down the candidate most linked to the Mubarak government and defying an angry mob of Islamists outside its door. It disqualified each of the candidates on narrow, technical grounds.
Mr. Abu Ismail’s disqualification had been expected; a passport and voter registration had emerged proving that his mother had been an American citizen, which disqualifies him from the presidency under current Egyptian law.
Mr. Shater was ruled ineligible because of a past criminal conviction, even though the charges were widely viewed as trumped up by the Mubarak government to punish him for his role as a leader of the Islamist opposition.
Election authorities said Mr. Suleiman had failed to meet the signature requirement to qualify for the ballot. Of the 30,000 notarized statements he submitted last weekend, most were said to lack adequate authentication or failed to meet geographic distribution requirements, they said.
Egyptians were stunned by the breadth of the decision. On the pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera, the anchor appeared unable to contain a grin, shaking his head in disbelief as a correspondent in Cairo reported the news.
“My head spins,” said Michael W. Hanna, an Egyptian researcher at the Century Foundation in New York. “It is so sweeping. It is increasingly puzzling what is going on and who is calling the shots.”
The campaigns have only two days to appeal to the commission and no recourse to any higher court. By Saturday night, conspiracy theories were already beginning to emerge about possible agendas behind the decisions.
The race has shaped up as a battle between Islamists and former officials of the Mubarak government. If the decision stands, it will effectively leave out the most polarizing candidates on both sides of the field.
Mr. Abu Ismail was the most hard-line Islamist, and Mr. Shater was the most powerful figure in the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. On the other side, Mr. Suleiman was the closest to Mr. Mubarak and appeared most likely to try to restore something like the old order.
With those figures gone, the battle lines remain the same but the fight looks less ferocious. Among the remaining Islamists are Mohamed el-Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party and its backup nominee, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a more liberal former leader of the Brotherhood who was expelled last year for bucking the political decisions of its executive committee.
Among the former government officials, the remaining front-runner is Amr Moussa, a popular former diplomat who was sidelined within the government as a potential rival to Mr. Mubarak.
By Saturday night, some supporters of Mr. Abu Ismail were suggesting that they would take to the streets in protest. His backers have grown increasingly angry as they have denied mounting evidence of his mother’s American citizenship, insisting that American documentation should not count in Egyptian courts. Before the decision was announced late Saturday, a mob of his supporters demonstrating outside the election commission on Friday night grew so rowdy that the commissioners were afraid for their safety. They ended their work early Friday and called for a heavy military guard when they resumed work on Saturday.
After the decision, Nizar Ghorab, a lawyer for Mr. Abu Ismail, told Reuters that he expected “a major crisis to happen in the next few hours.”
Diaa Rashwan, a researcher at the state-owned Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the decisions appeared even-handed because they hit both the Islamists and their archenemy, Mr. Suleiman. “It means that there is no alignment with one side or the other,” Mr. Rashwan said. “It will be seen by many Egyptians as a compromise.”
He predicted that the only problem may come from the supporters of Mr. Abu Ismail, the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis. “The Salafis are very angry, and they have the feeling that there is a kind of conspiracy against them,” he said. “We can expect some violent reaction.”
Lawyers for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was outlawed under Mr. Mubarak but now leads the Parliament, said Saturday night that they would try to persuade the election authorities to withdraw their decisions. Brotherhood officials have argued that Mr. Shater should not be barred because of a conviction they say was more political than legal.
The decision also renders moot legislation passed in Parliament this week that would seek to block the candidacy of Mr. Suleiman and other top officials of the Mubarak government. The bill still needed to be approved by Egypt’s current military rulers and pass a constitutional challenge.
Many Islamists and liberals have feared that holdover officials in the military, intelligence services and other parts of the government might use their power and position to install Mr. Suleiman in an effort to preserve the old order, but this decision appeared to rule that out.
Mr. Suleiman’s campaign had stunned the political world by collecting the requisite 30,000 notarized statements of support from around the country in less than 48 hours, just in time to meet the deadline. Many argued that such a feat would not have been possible without the behind-the-scenes support of either the intelligence service or the military.
Those fears were redoubled last week after a report that Mr. Suleiman’s campaign manager had been his chief of staff at the intelligence service and had started the campaign from an office in the service’s headquarters.
The election commission also disqualified seven less prominent candidates, including another former intelligence official and the former opposition candidate Ayman Nour. Like Mr. Shater, Mr. Nour had been convicted in a political trial. Others were disqualified because they did not meet the requirements for the 30,000 endorsements or nomination by a political party represented in Parliament.
Mayy El-Sheikh contributed reporting.