The elimination of three of the main contenders from Egypt's presidential race has eroded the chances of an Islamist candidate to seize the country's top job.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political group to emerge from last year's uprising, finds itself increasingly in a bind. It is unable to exercise the power of its electoral wins so far and is jostling with the ruling generals and liberal and secular groups that drove the uprising but now fear religious domination of politics.
The Brotherhood was outraged over the election commission's decision late Saturday to bar its chief strategist and leading choice for president, Khairat el-Shater. It threatened more protests like a large march on Friday that drew tens of thousands of Islamists to Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"This is a political decision not a legal one, said Murad Mohammed Ali, a spokesman for el-Shater's campaign. "This commission is politicized and we will exert all political pressures to restore our rights."
The election commission disqualified 10 candidates from the May 23-24 vote including el-Shater and a popular, more hardline Islamist from another party, Hazem Abu Ismail. Omar Suleiman, who was ousted President Hosni Mubarak's long-time spy chief and only vice president, was also barred. He was believed to have been backed by the ruling military council that took power after Mubarak's ouster and is headed by Mubarak's long-time defense minister.
The shakeout left three front-runners and two of them are stiff competitors of the Muslim Brotherhood _ former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and a prominent Brotherhood defector, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh. The other front-runner is the Brotherhood's second choice for the presidency, Mohammed Morsi, who was nominated as a back-up in case el-Shater got eliminated.
The Brotherhood is also suffering from a public backlash over its decision to field a presidential candidate after promising it would not do so. Critics say the group has gotten too greedy for power and Suleiman, in the opening salvo of his campaign, warned the Brotherhood was trying to turn Egypt into a religious state.
The Brotherhood-led parliament that emerged from the pro-democracy uprising has passed only one law in its first few months in power and has failed in its bid to fire the military-appointed government it has blamed for depleting the country's coffers.
Last week, a court ruling suspended the constitution-writing panel appointed by parliament and dominated by Islamist parliament members after secular groups complained it was not representative.
After months of basking in its election victory, the Brotherhood has now returned to protesting, loudly criticizing the military rulers and threatening more demonstrations if the elimination of its top strategist from the race is upheld.
The electoral commission, appointed by the military rulers to oversee the vote, gave the candidates until Monday to contest their disqualification.
The three front-runners were disqualified for different reasons.
El-Shater was barred over his previous criminal record _ he was imprisoned like many Brotherhood activists under the Mubarak regime. The Brotherhood says it is confident he is eligible and plans to appeal the decision. El-Shater's lawyers say he was granted an amnesty and is eligible to run.
The Brotherhood nominated Morsi as a substitute in a move that indicated they were prepared for el-Shater's elimination. Morsi is the leader of the group's political arm and a close associate of el-Shater. But he is not considered as strong a candidate as his mentor.
The Brotherhood accused the ruling generals of "stealing" the revolution and robbing people of their right to choose their president.
Ironically, it is the Brotherhood that has been accused of "hijacking" the revolution by the groups that drove the uprising but have been largely sidelined in parliamentary elections and the presidential race.
The disqualifications angered the other major Islamist group that won big in parliamentary elections, the ultraconservative Salafis. They too are threatening to hold massive rallies to protest the commission's decision to eliminate Abu Ismail, the hard-line Islamist lawyer-turned-preacher. He was barred because his late mother held dual American-Egyptian citizenship. Under a new Egyptian electoral law, the candidate, the candidate's spouse or the candidates parents cannot hold any citizenship other than Egyptian.
Suleiman was barred because he did not meet the requirements for endorsements.
The three are not expected to win their appeals and the race will likely go ahead without them. A final list of candidates is to be released on April 26.
A poll conducted earlier this month by Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies showed that 45 percent of those who voted for the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections won't vote for it again in a new election.
The poll, which is conducted weekly, was carried out between the end of March and beginning of April with a 4 percent margin of error. About 47.9 percent of the 1,200 polled face-to-face thought el-Shater's decision to run was wrong, compared to 13.7 percent who supported it.
The same poll this week showed support for Suleiman jump from 8.2 percent to more than 31 percent over the past week after he announced his candidacy.
El-Shater made a small gain from less than 2 percent to 4.7 percent support.
Gamal Abdel-Gawad, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo who oversees the weekly poll, said the withdrawal of the Islamist candidates and Suleiman has strengthened the chances of former regime officials such as Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister.
"I think the Brotherhood has now realized the dangers of nominating el-Shater. They probably are realizing that his chances were not that big. So they are maybe counting their blessings. They will probably now focus on restoring some trust and building bridges with the other political forces," said Abdel-Gawad.
With el-Shater's elimination, the race has become less polarized, said Emad Gad, a lawmaker from the new Egyptian Social Democratic Party. But the Brotherhood must now compensate for its overreaching for power, he said.
"They must learn the lesson," Gad said. "They need to reach agreement with many forces, the military council, the civil groups, and restructure the constituent assembly in an acceptable manner. This time, there must be a guarantee from the military council over how the panel is formed."
There are signs that the Brotherhood is trying to reach a consensus on the panel to write the constitution.
A meeting between the military council and political parties, including the Brotherhood, reached an initial agreement to restructure the panel. They agreed to the demands of secular groups to form the panel solely from members outside of parliament, said Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the head of the ultraconservative Salafi party, who was at the meeting.