By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — At least 500 Egyptians have taken the first step to run for president, a sign of the excitement generated by the country's first presidential elections in which the outcome is in doubt, election officials said on Wednesday.
They said the 500 have obtained applications to officially declare their candidacy for the vote, which follows last year's ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Beside known presidential hopefuls who have been seriously campaigning, the applicants included a wide range of obscure Egyptians in different professions like journalists, judges, lawyers and school teachers, they said.
The election is scheduled for May 23-24. Independent applicants must secure the endorsement of 30 lawmakers or 30,000 people in at least 15 of Egypt's 18 provinces in order to run. Applicants from political parties with at least one member in parliament are exempt from these endorsements.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The office of the president in Egypt has powers far exceeding any other branch of government, with Mubarak, for example, running the country with unquestioned authority for 29 years until his ouster by a popular uprising 13 months ago.
The generals who took over power after his ouster function as a collective presidency, again with far-reaching powers.
Islamists who have dominated elections for parliament's two chambers would like to curtail the powers of the president's office and give more authority to the legislature.
Presidents in Egypt have since the overthrow of the monarchy nearly 60 years ago secured the land's highest office through heavily rigged referendums in which no other names but theirs appeared on ballot papers.
The only exception came in 2005, when Mubarak allowed other candidates to run against him. He won that vote comfortably, but later jailed the politician who finished a distant second on drummed-up forgery charges.
The presidential election will be the last stop in Egypt's turbulent transition to civilian rule. The generals, led by Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, have promised to hand over power shortly after a new president is announced on June 21.
But many in Egypt suspect that the generals are working behind the scenes to ensure that the next president is either beholden to them or not strong enough to challenge their decades-old immunity from civilian oversight.