By Tom Pfeiffer and Marwa Awad
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's election committee announced on Thursday that Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister could run for president after all, only two days after it had disqualified him, stoking confusion before next month's vote to replace the deposed president.
Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief, had been ruled out under a law passed by the Islamist-led parliament stripping political rights from top Mubarak-era figures.
But after the committee accepted his appeal, it confirmed him as one of 13 approved candidates. It had excluded 10 others last week. Front-runners include Islamists jailed by Mubarak and ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa, as well as Shafiq.
The vote, seen as a measure of the change wrought by a wave of Arab uprisings, takes place on May 23 and 24 and is expected to go to a run-off between the top two candidates in June. Polls have shown Moussa in the lead, though many voters are undecided.
Independently-owned Egyptian media plan to host a series of live televised debates, something new in the Arab world - as is the spectacle of a genuinely contested presidential election.
But much remains undecided in post-Mubarak Egypt, not least the powers of the president and parliament and the role of the military. Work on drafting a new constitution has collapsed.
Two Islamists, one a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the other an expelled member, look like strong challengers for the powerful job held by men with a military background since army officers overthrew the king in 1952.
Shafiq is the strongest contender to have served in a high-ranking military post. The committee's decision to reinstate him drew a rebuke from the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates parliament and has taken part in recent protests against the idea of a Mubarak aide competing for the presidency.
"After listening to Shafiq's appeal, the committee decided to halt the decision to exclude him from the presidential race," Farouk Soltan, the head of the election committee, told a news conference called to unveil the final list of 13 contenders.
Chronic confusion over who can run for president underlines the fragility of a democratic transition in the Arab world's most populous country and has raised questions over the army's willingness to give up power after the formal handover in July.
Adding further uncertainty, Soltan said the Supreme Constitutional Court would review the law that would have ejected Shafiq. The law denied political rights to anyone who served at the very top of government or the former ruling party.
Were the Constitutional Court to uphold the law's validity, Shafiq's candidacy would be declared illegitimate and the entire election would be thrown into doubt.
Shafiq, 71, has been seen as the army's preferred choice. He has said he has the experience to maintain good ties with the military and ensure a smooth handover to civilian rule.
Yet the generals have said they have no role in the vote. Some analysts believe they are averse to the idea of a Shafiq presidency, fearing it would galvanize protests and lead to more instability that could keep them mired in day-to-day politics.
Shafiq's re-entry could split the anti-Islamist vote, making it a tougher race for Moussa, a secular-minded liberal who was a foreign minister under Mubarak. Ministers were not among those targeted under the new law.
The Brotherhood and other groups have appealed for a demonstration on Friday called "Saving the Revolution", which is expected to focus anger at the army and those like Shafiq viewed as trying revive the political fortunes of Mubarak's allies.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said the election committee's job was to apply the law and that its decision to restore Shafiq had damaged its credibility.
"Its behavior is clearly characterized by confusion: today no, tomorrow, yes, and the truth is this shakes its status and its position as a neutral committee," Ghozlan told Reuters.
Soltan defended the committee's neutrality.
"The committee confirms it is not against, or in confrontation with, anyone who has been excluded," he said.
Among the candidates disqualified by the committee last week were Mubarak's former spy chief, the Brotherhood's first-choice candidate and a popular Islamist preacher.
The Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi is still in the race along with Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who was expelled by the group for declaring himself a presidential candidate, defying a now-defunct Brotherhood pledge not to field one of its own.
The ultra-orthodox Salafis have stayed out of the race and are being wooed by Mursi and Abol Fotouh for their votes. A Salafi party came second to the Brotherhood in the parliamentary election. So far, the Salafis appear divided over who to back.
A religious body, The Religious Authority for Rights and Reform, whose decisions are respected by many Salafis and other Islamists endorsed Mursi on Wednesday.
But the main Salafi al-Nour party, which has hinted it could back Abol Fotouh, saying it preferred a moderate Islamist candidate. The Nour Party spokesman said the Salafi religious authority had jumped the gun.
"This announcement of its decision in this timing and in this way is a departure from the consensus initiative adopted by the Salafi call, and is going ahead of the efforts to agree on one Islamist candidate," said Mohamed Nour, the spokesman.
(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad and Edmund Blair; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Tom Perry; Editing by Alistair Lyon)