Hosni Mubarak's former spy chief said in comments published Thursday that he decided to run for president to prevent Islamists from turning Egypt into a "religious state," and warned that the country would be internationally isolated if one of them won the presidency.
Omar Suleiman's comments in a newspaper interview came just hours before the Islamist-dominated parliament passed a bill that strips senior Mubarak regime figures of their political rights for 10 years. The bill was hurriedly put together this week in a bid to disqualify Suleiman, who briefly served as Mubarak's vice president, from running for president.
The law would only come into effect if the military council that took over from Mubarak when he stepped down 14 months ago ratifies it. The generals have yet to speak publicly on the issue, but they are not likely to ratify or reject the bill before the election commission issues a final list of presidential candidates, which is expected later this month.
The election for the first president since the ousted Mubarak is shaping into a showdown between Suleiman and Islamists led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which announced on March 31 that its deputy leader, Khairat el-Shater, would run.
The Brotherhood and other Islamists plan a large protest on Friday against Suleiman's candidacy, the first major attempt to move the competition into the street.
The presidential election is due on May 23-24, with a possible runoff on June 16-17. The winner will be announced on June 21, less than two weeks before the July 1 deadline promised by the military to hand over power.
But a series of political crises has thrown an already turbulent transition to civilian rule deeper into confusion.
In the last two weeks, a court suspended the work of an Islamist-dominated, 100-member panel tasked with drafting a new constitution on the grounds its makeup violated the spirit of a constitutional declaration governing its formation. The eligibility of at least six of the 23 presidential hopefuls is being challenged in the courts, while an increasingly bitter dispute between the military and the Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political group, threatens to boil over and derail the entire political process. On top of the political chaos, security in the country remains tenuous and the economy is faltering.
Suleiman told the weekly El-Fagr newspaper that the Brotherhood's fielding of a presidential candidate "horrified" Egyptians.
The Brotherhood's nomination of el-Shater reversed an earlier promise not to run a candidate. Suleiman announced his own bid a week later.
In the interview, Suleiman noted that the Brotherhood already controls just under half of parliament's seats and is the chamber's largest single bloc. Including ultraconservatives known as Salafis, the Islamists hold 70 percent of the legislature.
Suleiman warned that the Brotherhood would control all state institutions if it wins the presidency.
"If Egypt falls under the rule of (Islamist) groups, it will suffer isolation and its people will suffer from the inability to communicate with others," he said.
"It is my belief that those who demand that I run, like a majority of this nation's citizens, are in a predicament and indeed the whole state is in a predicament, especially after the Brotherhood decided to field one of its leaders for the presidency after it pledged not to," Suleiman, a 75-year-old career army officer, said in the interview.
"That change struck horror in the souls of members of Egyptian society. If the Brotherhood's candidate wins the presidential election, Egypt will be turned into a religious state. All state institutions will be controlled by the Brotherhood."
During Mubarak's three-decade secular presidency, the Brotherhood was subjected to a series of crackdowns that put thousands of its members behind bars. Suleiman himself is known to be a hardline critic of Islamist groups.
Suleiman's aides said that in just two days they collected more than 100,000 signatures in support of his candidacy, or nearly four times the 30,000 endorsements needed to qualify to run. "I took that miracle to mean a popular mandate and divine facilitation. I am not a dervish, but what happened was truly a miracle," Suleiman said.
After announcing Mubarak's departure in a brief televised address on Feb. 11 last year, Suleiman disappeared from the public gaze. However, he has retained influence and told El-Fagr that he has since offered "help for Egypt" to the nation's ruling generals.
The political ban on Mubarak-era officials, according to the bill, covers those who served in high-level posts of the former regime _ president, vice president, prime minister, head of the ruling party, its secretary-general and members of its politburo _ at any time during the 10 years prior to Mubarak's ouster.
Mohamed Mashaal, a spokesman for Suleiman's campaign, quoted him as telling aides in a meeting Thursday that the bill was unconstitutional.
Before lawmakers voted by show of hands, government representatives told the legislature that the bill violated the constitution, and Justice Minister Mohammed Attiyah said that no one should be stripped of their political rights without a court order. Lawmakers countered that the nation was in a "revolutionary state" that empowers them to adopt such a bill.
Others warned that a Suleiman presidency would mean the imprisonment of lawmakers and what one member of parliament described as the return of Israel's influence in Egypt. Suleiman frequently visited Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of his duties as Mubarak's point man on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt has the Arab world's first peace treaty with the Jewish state.
"We are in a state of self-defense, we are defending Egypt and ourselves," said independent Islamist lawmaker Mahmoud Khodeiri, one of the country's top legal experts. "Omar Suleiman means Mubarak returns to the palace, and we all go to prison, and these are the lucky ones because others will be sent to the gallows."
Mubarak is on trial for his life, charged with complicity in the killing of protesters in the uprising that toppled his regime. He was arrested in April last year, but has since been detained in a hospital.
Associated Press correspondent Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.