A greatly-respected Islamist figure, who is seen by many as a true fearless revolutionary voice and a tremendously knowledgeable yet jovial and modest man, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail
gained in popularity and appeared to stand a strong chance of assuming power in post-Mubarak Egypt.
After Abu-Ismail unveiled his intention to run for president in July 2011, his supporters contributed over months to building up his exemplary status. Tens of thousands – mainly Islamists – across the nation proclaimed allegiance to the charismatic 51-year-old, pushing forward his standing.
Significant developments, however, seem to have left his shiny image hanging in the balance.
To begin with, the presidential race has grown a lot more competitive. The Muslim Brotherhood reversed its decision not to field a candidate – a step that is likely to cause Abu-Ismail to lose a portion of the Islamist vote. Also, another u-turn saw ex-intelligence chief Omar Suleiman become a presidential candidate, allegedly backed by the ruling military rulers.
Abu-Ismail, meanwhile, has been busy for over a week trying to defend his credibility – and even eligibility to take part in the looming elections – after Egyptian and US authorities confirmed that his late mother had been granted US citizenship. If true, Abu-Ismail would be immediately struck off the ballot list as he would no longer be eligible, and might also be convicted of forgery.
For now, the nationality saga has meant that Abu-Ismail has been unable to promote himself as a presidential contender as actively as had been in the past few months.
Having filed a lawsuit, which the court will look into on Tuesday, to prove that his mother had never held any nationality other than Egyptian, Abu-Ismail has maintained that the whole saga is a "malicious" plot. At a popular conference at Asad Ibn Al-Furat Mosque in Cairo's Dokki district on Saturday, he said, "All what the US [authorities] said is not legally acknowledged because it is not substantiated by official documents.
"The interior ministry must have the official documents of any Egyptian citizen who acquires a foreign nationality. Such papers belonging to my mother do not exist," he added.
Abu-Ismail said that if it were true that his mother had American citizenship. "I would have never decided to run for presidency … I am not too naïve to get into the [presidential] battle while having legal hindrances," he stated.
His words were met with chants from his supporters. They chanted "the mother of the sheikh is no American, these are military orders" and "down, down with the military rule," accusing the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of triggering the "rumour." "The people want Hazem Abu-Ismail" were also among the slogans they repeated.
The scene indicated that many of the conference attendees are still holding out hope the Salafist preacher will be taking part in the presidential elections. Speaking to Ahram Online the following day, some of his followers seemed to be unfazed and full of confidence in his honesty.
Mahmoud El-Kholy, a member of the Salafist Nour Party who has been a staunch supporter of Abu-Ismail on an individual basis, said, "I can confidently say I am quite sure, along with thousands of others, that this hoopla will turn out to be groundless, I know he will eventually be able to run for presidency. There is not a single piece of tangible evidence that actually proves his mother had dual nationality."
For his part, Ziad Ahmed, a spokesperson of the Hazem for All Campaign – which seeks to target Muslims and Copts from all walks of life and across the political spectrum – is also convinced there is no proof to accuse Abu-Ismail of forgery.
"Only the Egyptian judiciary is entitled to decide on this matter," he said. "If an Egyptian court in full transparency pronounces that he is ineligible to run for presidency, and reveals the reason why in the form of evidence, I and others will immediately stop supporting him."
But as the accusations have come from elsewhere, he believes that there is no reason to believe the claims. "We cannot take for granted allegations by the Ministry of Interior or the military council. In the past they have denied firing on protesters, and claimed many things that no-one believed, so why should we believe them now?
"It is also unacceptable to assume that statements by the US or any other countries are beyond doubt," he said.
Mahmoud Mohamed, a member of the same campaign, echoed similar sentiments, saying, "What if Israel said that someone is holding an Israeli passport? In such a case would we not verify the allegation, with a copy of the passport, for instance?
"The supporters of Abu-Ismail are flabbergasted at what's going on and are currently observing the situation," Mohamed explained, adding that "As far as I can see, the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission [SPEC] are the one passing all the allegations, whether from the US or the Egyptian foreign and interior ministries. We rather need official statements from these sides straightforwardly.
"On the bright side," he added, "should Abu-Ismail be cleared by the court; that would be the best-ever electoral campaign. But hopefully, it will not be too late by the time the verdict is returned."
El-Kholy is no less optimistic, saying, "If we assume that there were a million people supporting Abu-Ismail, the number has only reduced in recent days to 950-970 thousand."
When asked what his reaction would be should Abu-Ismail be eliminated, El-Kholy said, "I refuse to think of such a prospect because I deeply believe it is not true and it is not going to happen. But hypothetically speaking, people are backing an idea, not a person, so I guess they would opt to gather around another Islamist candidate.
"We have Abdulla El-Ashaal [whose presidential candidacy is officially endorsed by the Salafist Asala Party], Mohamed Morsi [of the Brotherhood] and [independent and ex-Brotherhood leading figure] Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh … The Islamist vote might split in the first round among them but it will unify in favour of one in the runoffs, if one of them made it. But I'm sure Abu-Ismail will not be ruled out.
"On Tuesday, the court will look into Abu-Ismail's lawsuit. Let's hope for the best," El-Kholy concluded.