CAIRO — Egypt's tumultuous presidential campaign, already roiled by the decision of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood to run a candidate after months of promises that it wouldn't, was in turmoil Friday over the possible exclusion of a popular Islamist candidate because his mother holds an American passport.
Egyptian law forbids candidates and their parents and spouses from holding foreign citizenship.
Thousands of protesters marched to Cairo's famous Tahrir Square on Friday in support of Hazem Salah Abu Ismaiel after the presidential elections committee said it had received "a statement from the Interior Ministry's Passport Department indicating that Nawal Abdelaziz Nour, Ismaiel's mother, is an American citizen carrying passport number 500611598."
The statement added that "the mentioned woman used her American passport to leave and return to the United States regularly, and used it to travel to Egypt and Germany in 2008 and 2009."
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It was unclear how the Interior Ministry had reached its conclusions. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said his ministry had yet to received responses from nations it had asked about Egyptians with dual citizenship.
Abu Ismaiel, a prominent Islamist cleric known for his weekly religious sermon attended by hundreds at a Cairo mosque, claimed on his Facebook page that the controversy over his mother's citizenship was "a major plot that was prepared with great care and over a long time." He said he'd hired a lawyer in the United States "to check into the matter and obtain the needed transcripts."
Abu Ismaiel is the son of Sheikh Salah Abu Ismaiel, who was known for being the most conservative Islamist member of Parliament from 1976 to 1990. The son's popularity is great. In registering his candidacy, he filed more than 100,000 letters of endorsement from citizens all over Egypt; the presidential elections law demands only 30,000 letters for independent candidates to qualify.
That support was evident Friday as thousands demonstrated in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations that drove President Hosni Mubarak from office last year. They accused the country's military rulers of taking sides with the West against the powerful Islamist candidate.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces doesn't want him in power. He pledged that they will get no immunity if he becomes president," said Nader Saleh, a 32-year-old surgeon and an Abu Ismaiel campaign volunteer. "Neither the U.S. nor Israel wants him as president because of his Islamist views."
Abu Ismaiel's supporters came face to face Friday with non-Islamist protesters who were calling for more liberal representation on the committee that's drafting a new constitution. The committee is chaired by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and controlled by Islamist factions.
One of the liberal demonstrators burned an Abu Ismaiel poster.
Abu Ismaiel's lawyer, Nizar Ghorab, said his client was unaware of his mother's American citizenship.
"Abu Ismaiel informed me that his mother is Egyptian and that he never knew she carried any other citizenship," he said. He said he'd filed a motion demanding official verification of Abu Ismaiel's mother's citizenship and that a decision was expected next Tuesday.
Egyptians are scheduled to vote May 23 and 24. If Abu Ismaiel is disqualified from the race, his support is almost certain to go to one of the other Islamist candidates, perhaps lessening the likelihood of a runoff.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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