The recently-announced presidential candidacy of leading Muslim Brotherhood figure, Khairat El-Shater, and the suspected illegibility of Salafist poster-child, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, to run for president, has fuelled speculation over May's eagerly-anticipated elections.
While questions are raised over the Islamist presidential contenders' expected shares of conservative votes, the chances of any of the candidates eventually assuming power seem to be hanging in the balance as well.
For the past weeks, pro-Islamist voters – cited as a main reason why the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Party secured the two largest portions of Parliament seats – were poised to cast their votes for any of three presidential hopefuls – Abu-Ismail, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Mohamed Selim El-Awa.
According to a public survey conducted by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, lawyer-cum-presidential frontrunner Abu-Ismail seemed to be set for the lion's share of Islamist votes, having gained the support of most of the Nour Party youth – who have been instrumental in pushing forward his presidential campaign – as well as some from the FJP. Neither party, however, have officially endorsed him.
Abul-Fotouh, a former Brotherhood icon who was expelled from the group for announcing his intention to run for the presidency last year, was widely deemed to be in second place in competition for Islamist votes, and also came after Abu-Ismail in the same survey.
Many junior Brotherhood members and defectors supported him in spite of their leaders' opposition. Most Salafists, however, consider him to be too liberal for their conservative tastes and opted to line up behind Abu-Ismail.
Meanwhile, lawyer El-Awa appeared to be a distant third in the Islamist race. Apart from the official support of the Wasat Party, which he had battled to launch and had been a member of, El-Awa could not secure substantial endorsements from Islamist political forces and is now regarded as an underdog in the looming presidential contest.
However, last weekend, drastic developments took place.
Late on Saturday, Khairat El-Shater was unveiled as the official candidate of the FJP, and shortly afterwards, media reports confirmed a rumour that Abu-Ismail's late mother was a naturalised US citizen, which would immediately rule him out of the presidential race, should the claim be proven.
El-Shater is seeking to amass all Islamist votes, with the official help of the Brotherhood and its political leg, the FJP. Meanwhile, the media's recent accusations regarding Abu-Ismail's mother's nationality have not receded.
In an interview with OnTV's Yusri Fouda Monday night, prominent political analyst Diaa Rashwan believes the withdrawal of Abu-Ismail is inevitable. Rashwan stated during the interview that he had it on good authority that the question is not "will" Abu-Ismail pull out but "how" will he pull out of the race. The Salafist frontrunner, however, has repeatedly denied the allegation over his mother's nationality.
Ahram Online below takes a look at the fates of the Islamist presidential hopefuls following these recent developments. The battle now for religiously-conservative votes will seemingly involve Abu-Ismail (at least for now), Abul-Fotouh and El-Shater, with El-Awa trailing behind.
Brotherhood rift: El-Shater vs Abul-Fotouh
The Brotherhood and the FJP have already been struggling with inner disputes, with many members backing Abul-Fotouh and trying to convince the group's decision-making bodies to follow suit.
To the reformists' dismay, however, the Brotherhood's leaders added fuel to the fire by putting forward El-Shater as their candidate for the forthcoming polls. He has parted company with the group by mutual consent to start his quest for Egypt's presidency, although he is unpopular among the Brotherhood youth.
While El-Shater belongs to the ultraconservative older generation of the Brotherhood, Abul-Fotouh is perceived to represent the more contemporary trend within the group's ranks and thus both men have been at each other's throats.
El-Shater is also widely believed to have instigated Abul-Fotouh's expulsion last year, when he announced his intention to run for president in violation of the Brotherhood's stated refusal to enodorse a member in the competition.
Ahmed Samir, an ex-member in the Brotherhood, a journalist and an Abul-Fotouh follower, spoke to Ahram Online about the controversial ideological clashes within the group.
"Before announcing the candidacy of Khairat El-Shater, not less than 75 per cent of the Muslim Brotherhood youth were determined to vote for Abul-Fotouh.
"But now things are different, I think. Most of the youth are likely to abide by the orders of the Brotherhood leaders, while a small fraction of them will hold on to their support of Abul-Fotouh," he argued.
Samir reckons that it is fair to say that the Islamist trio are neck-and-neck in the presidential race, although he highlighted the "edge" Abul-Fotouh has over El-Shater. "The chances of Abul-Fotouh, El-Shater and Abu Ismail are equal I would say.
"It is unclear who will win but Abul-Fotouh has got an edge over El-Shater because he had more time to campaign – almost a year. El-Shater, on the other hand, has around three weeks to promote his candidacy," he said.
For his part, Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, a researcher in Islamist movements who is close to the Brotherhood's leaders, told Ahram Online that the candidacy of El-Shater would affect both Abul-Fotouh and Abu-Ismail, but echoed the same sentiments as Samir.
"He [El-Shater] will secure some votes from Abu-Ismail and Abul-Fotouh's supporters, but that will not affect the latter two dramatically," El-Houdaiby elaborated. "After all, the competition is unpredictable; their chances are actually equal."
Nour Party vulnerable for similar splits
The same sort of cracks might also hit the Nour Party, whose young members overwhelmingly support Abu-Ismail, as media reports suggest the party's leadership might eventually back El-Shater's candidacy.
Several reports said the Nour Party's leading figures want to follow on the heels of the Brotherhood's allies, such as Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya's Building and Development Party who now back El-Shater, in an attempt to unify all Islamist votes behind one contender and, critics say, achieve political gains.
Nour Party president Emad Abdel-Ghafour told Ahram Online that his side has yet to officially endorse a contender.
"Originally, we agreed to announce our decision on which candidate to support by the end of the formal registration process for presidential candidates on 8 April," he said.
"But after the recent developments, we have decided to hold meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, by the end of which we may decide to make a decision and reveal it."
Abdel-Ghafour also played down suggestions that a rift would be created within the party's ranks, should the leaders decide to support El-Shater.
"That will not cause any problems at all," he stressed.
"There might be some disagreements if the party decides not to endorse Abu-Ismail's candidacy, but those who support him are our sons. We would try to convince them of our perspective and I think they would come around."
But Mahmoud El-Kholy, a Nour Party member and a staunch follower of Abu-Ismail, thinks otherwise. "I will support Abu-Ismail even if the Nour Party decides not to. I would never vote for El-Shater, and many of the party youth have the same attitude," the 33-year-old network engineer told Ahram Online.
"I think the Nour Party has to take its time before making this decision. The rumours that surrounded Abu-Ismail – that his mother was a US citizen – make the leaders more confused, and of course there is a chance that they might choose El-Shater.
"They will either decide to stand by the implementation of the sharia [Islamic law] as it really is [by supporting Abu-Ismail], or to seek to politicise the religion [by endorsing El-Shater]. If they opt for the latter, I am sure that at least hundreds, if not thousands, will defect from the Nour Party in protest.
"The Salafist scholars [such as Mohamed Hassan and Mohamed Hussein Yakoob] support Abu-Ismail and have not changed their minds. Their opinion is more important to me than the party."
If Abu-Ismail was declared ineligible to run for president, El-Kholy said, "I would never cast my vote for El-Shater. I might vote for Abul-Fotouh but never El-Shater, whose nomination came out of the blue.
"Does he have a presidential programme? If so, that would mean it was prepared in advance and the Brotherhood waited until just now to announce his candidacy, despite their earlier promises they would not field a presidential candidate.
"El-Shater's presidential bid came as an insult to the intelligence of all Egyptians," El-Kholy concluded.