Over the last few weeks, the Egyptian presidential race has packed in a lifetime of political drama -- and then some. First, in late March and early April, the Muslim Brotherhood broke its pledge not to run any candidates in the election and proceeded to register not one but two. Then, on April 6, Omar Suleiman, former President Hosni Mubarak's intelligence chief, announced that he was "a soldier that had never refused an order in his life" and would therefore reluctantly accept his supporters' supposed clamoring for him to enter the race. The dust from those bombshells hadn't even settled when Egypt's administrative court disqualified Suleiman; Khairat el-Shater, the Brotherhood's chief strategist and first-choice candidate;  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a hard-line Salafist; and seven other contenders from the race.

If that were not enough, on April 15, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military-led interim government, broke a period of relative silence to suggest that it might delay the presidential election, scheduled to begin May 23 and 24, if the constitutional drafting committee could not finish Egypt's new charter before June 30, when the SCAF is due to hand over power to the newly elected government. Days later, the SCAF backtracked and confirmed that the election would go ahead as planned. But the damage was already done. With all the twists and turns, Egyptians are rightfully anxious about what lies ahead. Foreign commentators, too, have scrambled to parse how these developments will affect the presidential horse race. The consensus among them seems to be that Egypt's politics have been turned upside down and that the Islamists have been weakened.

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In fact, although this month's events have somewhat reconfigured the race, they have not changed its nature. Shater was disqualified on account of his prior criminal record. Indeed, by his own admission, he had spent more than 12 years in prison on half a dozen different charges. To be sure, the convictions were handed down by military tribunals, which, most would concede, were politically motivated. Still, as disappointing as his disqualification is for his constituents, who view him as a Nelson Mandela-like figure because of the heavy price he paid for his opposition to the former regime, the Brotherhood does have a replacement. That man, Mohamed Mursi, is a professor by occupation and nature and was the head of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc from 2000 to 2005. Although Mursi lacks Shater's charisma and compelling backstory -- he spent only a scant seven months in prison -- most of Shater's acolytes will find him an acceptable second choice.

Then there is Suleiman, whom the court judged not to have enough signatures to run. The announcement emerged just as parliament was debating a bill that would have barred high-ranking Mubarak regime officials from elected office, an effort that was specifically aimed at stopping Suleiman's bid. In other words, Suleiman's final ouster was not terribly surprising (although it was sudden) and will not leave too large a hole in the field of candidates: Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and head of the Arab League is still in the running and is a likely recipient of Suleiman's displaced voters. Like Suleiman, Moussa stands for secularism and a degree of continuity with the prior system.

The third candidate, Abu Ismail, was disqualified because his mother had become a naturalized U.S. citizen. (This is one twist the United States could probably do without. Although Washington would have been loath to see Abu Ismail become president, his dismissal is making already strained U.S.-Egyptian relations worse. In the wake of the court's disqualification, Abu Ismail's supporters papered Cairo with fliers reading, "Abu Ismail is truthful, the Americans are liars" -- a reference to the fact that U.S. authorities apparently supplied evidence of his mother's citizenship to the court.) Of all the candidates to receive the boot, Abu Ismail is the most irreplaceable. The rare Salafist with crossover appeal, he had been rocketing up in the polls, running a strong second behind Moussa before the courts barred him from the race. The one remaining Salafist in the contest is Abdullah al-Ashaal, the nominee of one of Egypt's main Salafist parties, who lacks Abu Ismail's popularity.

Despite the dramatic shake-up, many commentators overexaggerated the extent to which the race itself had changed. The issue at stake is not whether Mursi can command the same support as Shater, or whether the departure of Abu Ismail improves the chances of the secular candidates. Just as before the disqualifications, the fundamental decision voters face is about the scope and nature of the change Egypt will undergo in the coming years. And there are still candidates representing almost every position on that spectrum.

For those who seek stability, a measure of continuity with the prior system, and a check on the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, there are several options. The choice before the disqualifications was among Suleiman, Ahmed Shafiq (a retired general and the last prime minister appointed under Mubarak), and Moussa. Moussa and Shafiq will naturally benefit from Suleiman's disqualification.

Moussa is the odds-on favorite to secure the stability vote. Shafiq is burdened by having been part of Mubarak's last-ditch effort at holding on to power. Moussa is also susceptible to accusations that he is a remnant of the old regime and lacks revolutionary credentials. But because he was sidelined by the previous regime (and because, as foreign minister and head of the Arab League, he mined every possible applause line by talking tough on Israel), he is viewed much more favorably by the Egyptian electorate.

For those who are interested in farther-reaching change, there are still a variety of Islamist candidates from which to choose. Abd al-Munim Abu al-Futuh, a reformist who separated from the Muslim Brotherhood after declaring his candidacy, runs strong among the better-educated, urban, religious voters. Mursi, while not a natural politican, is a first-tier candidate simply by dint of the Muslim Brotherhood's backing. And Ashaal remains in the race even though he is not a leading candidate. These candidates' platforms all emphasize similar themes: anticorruption, greater opportunity for all Egyptians, a stronger religious orientation, and the end of Egypt's dependency on the United States. Among these candidates, no clear front-runner has emerged, although Mursi would appear to have the inside track given that he is the official candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the likely event that none of the 13 candidates wins an absolute majority in the first round of voting next month, a run-off between the top two finishers will take place on June 16 and 17. Egyptians understand this; before the disqualifications, the first round had already been shaping up as two separate primaries: one to pick the stability candidate and one to pick the Islamist alternative. The real politicking -- and the real debate about Egypt's future -- will begin in the second round.

Although the disqualifications have not changed the underlying dynamic of the race -- stability versus Islamist-led change --they have put the legitimacy of the election in the eyes of the Egyptian public in doubt. Whatever one thinks of the outcome of the 2011-12 legislative election, in which the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing and the Salafists won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliament, few dispute the vote's tally. Egyptians and international observers alike believed that the process was free and fair, the first act in a play that would end with Egypt's full democratization.

In hindsight, however, those elections might turn out to be the high-water mark of Egypt's political transition. Since the parliament was seated in January, the Muslim Brotherhood has been locked in constant battle with the military over who has the authority to nominate the cabinet and the members of the body that will draft a constitution -- hence the SCAF's threat to suspend the elections if the details are not resolved soon.

The SCAF's threat, combined with its general unwillingness to cede power to parliament, has made the legislature look impotent. In the wake of the disqualifications, the Egyptian public might come to see the new president that way, too. As Shater put it after being disqualified, "The military is not serious about transferring power to civilian authority. . . . They are looking for an authority they can direct from behind the curtain."

Salvaging Egypt's political transition does not require the election of a secular president. At this point, what is most important is that Egypt's first post-revolutionary president be seen as the genuine choice of the people, elected through a transparent, fair process. Unfortunately -- and even if several candidates who represent the actual views of the Egyptian public remain in the running -- such an outcome is now in doubt, thanks to the chaos, drama, and politicking that have surrounded the electoral process.  

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  • JEFF MARTINI is a Project Associate at the RAND Corporation. He recently returned from assignment in Egypt.
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