“The SCAF wants to pull the strings from behind the scenes,” said Khairat el-Shater, a Muslim Brotherhood official who had been considered a front- runner, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Another candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who was disqualified because his mother held an American passport in violation of Egyptian law, called the decision part of a “conspiracy.”

Others, though, said that the simultaneous disqualification of Omar Suleiman, a former Egyptian intelligence chief under President Hosni Mubarak, suggested that the panel, whose members included judges promoted to senior posts by the former government, had independently reached a decision that relied only on interpretations of the law, although narrow ones.

The disqualifications threw the presidential race into a new bout of turmoil and underscored a growing confusion surrounding the country’s politics, which often seem to be captive to feuds or deals between powerful new actors that usually occur out of public view. And they threw a spotlight on the influential five-member election commission, which has been given broad powers to oversee every aspect of what is supposed to be the country’s first fair presidential election, with virtually no oversight.

Many criticisms have centered on the panel’s president, Farouk Sultan, who is seen as particularly close to the former government. Analysts said that his rapid rise from a lower court judge to the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court — the country’s highest — fueled suspicions that he was handpicked by government officials to oversee the 2011 elections, which either Mr. Mubarak or his son Gamal had been expected to win. Egypt’s revolution that began in January 2011 interrupted those plans. Mr. Sultan could not be reached for comment immediately.

Analysts said that by the time Mr. Sultan was appointed as head of the constitutional court, Mr. Mubarak had completed a decade-long drive to stamp out any independence on the part of the presiding judges. That effort had started with government fears after a series of activist decisions, including one that placed elections under judicial supervision.

Chief judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court, once selected by colleagues from within the court’s ranks according to seniority and experience, began to be appointed for political reasons, sometimes from lower courts. Mr. Sultan, who also sat on the military and state security courts, became chief justice of the high court in 2009. Zakaria Abdul Aziz, a former president of the court of appeals who advocates for independence in the judiciary, called Mr. Sultan “a big part of the Mubarak regime.”

Mona El-Ghobashy, a professor of political science at Barnard College who has studied Egypt’s judiciary for years, said the concerns about the commission did not end with Mr. Sultan. This year, another judge on the election panel, Abdul Moez Ibrahim, was accused by a colleague of trying to influence a high-profile case involving foreign nongovernmental groups. Later, his fellow judges tried, unsuccessfully, to have him removed as president of the Cairo court of appeals.

And the election commission’s administrator, Hatem Bagato, has remained in his role, despite telling an Egyptian newspaper that he was distantly related to another leading presidential candidate, Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister.

Professor Ghobashy said it was possible that the panel was acting independently. After all, she said, even with strong limitations, occasionally “fake institutions take on a life of their own.” But what was more likely, she said, was that Egypt’s military rulers were playing a role in the commission’s decision-making.

“It’s obvious the presidential election exercise cannot be left to its own devices,” she said. “It will bring someone the SCAF doesn’t want to deal with. How do they manage it to look like it’s completely legitimate without using techniques like intervention, or rigging? There’s a back story.”

It is hard to say which factions, if any, benefited from the disqualifications. Many people find it hard to believe that anyone can fully control of Egypt’s volatile course. None of the remaining front-runners are seen as close to the ruling military council, though some experts said that a few candidates, including Mr. Moussa, would be more palatable to the military than Mr. Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood or Mr. Abu Ismail, a popular ultraconservative Islamist.

The election panel provided reasons for the disqualifications, hewing to what observers said was the letter of the law, even if the reasons struck many people as unreasonable. Mr. Shater and another candidate, Ayman Nour, were disqualified because of convictions for political crimes that were widely seen as linked to their opposition to Mr. Mubarak.

“They do announce reasons, but ultimately, they’re not appealable,” said Nathan J. Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University who has written extensively about the Egyptian courts. “That makes some sense. But it also essentially means that you’ve got this body dominated by old regime holdovers whose decisions cannot be reviewed. I think this is giving people problems. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 04/20/12) Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting