Initial returns from Egypt’s first post-revolution presidential election indicate that the race is headed to the most polarizing showdown possible: a runoff between the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, and the candidate most closely associated with former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Ahmed Shafiq.
Official results will not be announced until next week. But according to Dr. Morsi’s campaign, which has observers at each vote-counting station and says 90 percent of the vote has been counted, he and Mr. Shafiq are leading and will advance to a runoff. If the Brotherhood is correct, the race between the two figures will sharpen the bitter divide between Islamists and remnants of the Mubarak regime and could plunge Egypt into further instability.
It also leaves many Egyptians, those who support the revolution but don’t want a strongly Islamist president, feeling disenfranchised. Some counts suggest Hamdeen Sabbahi, a proponent of Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab ideology who ran on a populist platform, was fairly close, coming in third place with some votes yet to be counted.
The runoff, schedule for June 16 and 17, will put tremendous pressure on Egypt’s transition, just two weeks before the interim military rulers have promised to hand over power.
Surprising rise of Shafiq, Mubarak's prime minister
Though Morsi was not depicted as a front-runner in polls leading up to the race, he is backed by the most organized political machine in the post-revolution uprising. His strong emphasis on religious rhetoric and promises to implement sharia, or Islamic law, energized his base while frightening many secularist Egyptians.
Shafiq’s rise, however, is surprising to some. His impressive showing – less than a year and a half after Egyptians revolted against the regime he was a part of – means that Egypt could see a president who condemned the very uprising that made his campaign possible.
After the uprising against Mubarak’s regime began in January, the embattled president appointed Shafiq as prime minister in a cabinet shakeup intended to appease the protesters. Shafiq remained in this post when regime-backed thugs attacked the protesters gathered in Tahrir Square. He is seen as the preferred candidate of the military, which has appeared reluctant to give up its power and privileges when it transfers power to a civilian government.
Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Durham University in Britain, says Shafiq's rise is due to the organization of the remnants of Mubarak’s regime, a backlash against the Brotherhood, and a transition period mismanaged by Egypt’s military, which left many Egyptians craving stability and security. It was also aided by the fragmentation of the secularist-liberal vote, which was split between several candidates.
Many Christians appeared to vote for Shafiq as an anti-Islamist vote. Some said that their priests in the Coptic Orthodox church had urged them to vote for the former Air Force commander and Mubarak-era minister. The Brotherhood has also suffered a backlash after winning nearly 50 percent of parliamentary seats several months ago. Some Egyptians say the party has failed to live up to its promises, and others are angry the organization went back on its year-long promise not to field a presidential candidate and seek to dominate Egypt’s political system.
Bicycle repairman Badr Ishaq in the mostly poor neighborhood of Imbaba voted for the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections, but said they had done nothing since. He voted for Shafiq this time around, hoping for better results.
Still others are tired of the unrest and violence that has wracked Egypt since the uprising, as the military rulers have blundered their way through the transition. They see Shafiq, a strong military man, as the one who can return stability and end chaos. Adel Shehata, a teacher who voted for Shafiq, said it was a matter of security.
“The most important thing is that he has a military background, which makes him capable to manage the country during this period,” he said after he voted Thursday. “Security is the No. 1 concern.”
All part of the military's plan?
Dr. Anani of Durham University says Shafiq’s strong showing is the result of a strategy by the country's interim military rulers. “Now I understand why the military insisted to postpone the elections, to get people tired, to create some kind of fatigue among people, at the expense of the revolution," he says. "They don't have to commit any kind of forgery now – there's no need. They already played on the minds of people.”
While Shafiq has campaigned as the candidate who can restore stability, his win in the runoff could do the opposite. Brotherhood leaders have stated that Shafiq could not win unless the state engaged in massive fraud, a scenario Brotherhood member Mohamed El Beltagi said recently would take place “over our dead bodies.” A Morsi loss could bring their supporters to the street. Anani also warns that a Shafiq win could bolster radical and violent Islamists.
A win by Morsi, on the other hand, would face strong resistance from Egypt’s security apparatus, which for decades repressed, jailed, and tortured members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.
According to incomplete counts, a late surge by Hamdeen Sabbahi, a pan-Arabist and leftist, put him in third place ahead of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member and moderate Islamist who sought to bridge the Islamist-secular polarization. Amr Moussa, Mubarak’s former foreign minister who enjoyed wide popularity and was considered a frontrunner in the race, was trailing, according to the initial counts.
Many of the secular and liberal activists who helped spark Egypt's uprising will likely refuse to vote in the runoff, unwilling to back either a strong Islamist or a member of the Mubarak regime. Esraa Abdel Fattah, who helped plan a national strike in 2008 that was considered an important point on the road to the revolution, said she would boycott a Shafiq-Morsi race. "I cannot think that any of us [revolutionaries] can vote" in such a race, she said before the election.