Egypt’s stark choice: Islamist hardliner or Mubarak’s man
For many Egyptians, a June presidential run-off represents a worst-case scenario with Ahmed Shafiq (left), a former Mubarak-era official, facing off against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi (right).
By the time the results of Egypt’s first open and competitive presidential election were officially announced on Monday afternoon, the outcome itself was one of the least well-kept secrets in the world’s most populous Arab nation.
Ahead of Monday’s announcement, unofficial tallies of last week’s vote had already suggested a run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi and former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.
At a packed news conference on Monday, the country’s electoral commission chief Faruq Sultan confirmed a result that for many Egyptians represents an agonizing dilemma: Mursi topped the poll, winning 24.3% of the vote, while Shafiq came second with 23.3%.
"No candidate won an outright majority,” announced Sultan. “ So, according to Article 40 of the presidential election law, there will be a run-off between Mursi and Shafiq."
But only a few months ago, the prospect of an Islamist candidate facing off against a former Mubarak regime official would have been inconceivable.
“They are polar opposites really and the irony of this choice is that you have an Islamist candidate up against a military-backed secular candidate that some would say represents the same autocratic type of state that Mubarak ruled for decades,” said FRANCE 24’s International News Editor Douglas Herbert.
An unenviable choice in a highly polarised field
The results of the first round of the presidential election have in effect presented an extremely polarised field with Egyptian voters facing a choice of two ideologically antithetical candidates in the run-off scheduled for June 16 and 17.
But for Egyptian voters who did not support Mursi or Shafiq, it’s an unenviable choice.
“For those who had hoped to really turn the page on the Mubarak era, seeing Ahmed Shafik as the leading candidate is totally unacceptable and for those with second thoughts about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics – particularly after the way they have conducted parliamentary politics – this is really putting Egyptian voters between a rock and a hard spot,” said Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) dominates parliament with two-fifths of the seats. But many Egyptians have been dismayed over the Brotherhood’s track record in parliament with critics charging that the country’s oldest Islamist group has taken an increasingly divisive and hardline stance.
While voter turnout in last week’s poll was 46%, more than 50% of the voters who cast their ballot in last week’s poll did not support either Mursi or Shafiq.
‘No to Shafiq and to the Brotherhood’
Monday’s results were a particular blow for secular, liberal or left-leaning Egyptians, many of whom took to the streets of Egyptian cities – particularly in Cairo’s Tahrir Square - last year to oust Mubarak from power.
“For many of the people who are behind the revolution, it’s the worst case scenario they could have imagined,” said Rogan. “I think you’re going to find that Tahrir Square is going to be the centre of Egypt’s political life once again.”
Shortly after the official announcement, the microblogging site Twitter erupted with protests. “No #Mursi No #Shafiq #EgPresElex,” tweeted respected US-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltawahy. "Two you can't trust: the soldiers and the Brotherhood," tweeted Liam Stack @liamstack.
In the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria, hundreds of protesters took to the streets Monday chanting, "No to Shafiq and to the Brotherhood. The revolution is still in the square."
On Monday night, a group of protesters set fire to Shafiq’s campaign headquarters in Cairo in a public display of rage against a candidate widely viewed as a symbol of Mubarak’s rule.
While international observers such as Former US President Jimmy Carter, said the first round of the vote had been encouraging, there were appeals launched before the electoral commission, all of which were rejected.
At least three of the 13 presidential candidates filed complaints about the voting, which were rejected by the six judges forming the electoral committee. The candidates include Hamdeen Sabahy, who came third, as well as moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh and former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa.
Where Moussa lost and Shafiq gained ground
In the run-up to last week’s election, Moussa was widely considered a frontrunner. But following a dismal performance in the country’s first-ever televised debate on May 10, Moussa’s popularity plummeted. In the end, the seasoned Arab diplomat came fifth, winning only 10.9% of the vote.
Many observers believe Shafiq managed to overweigh Moussa’s extensive foreign policy experience by focusing on domestic security, an important issue for many Egyptians following last year’s revolution, particularly among Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, which comprises 10% of the population.
With his military background, Shafiq was widely viewed as a candidate who could restore domestic security and curb the growing power of political Islam.
In the run-up to the second round, both candidates are expected to make concerted efforts to reach out to an electorate weary of the pitfalls of the transition process.
“I imagine that a lot of the people who voted for (moderate Islamist) Abol Fotouh will find Mohamed Mursi to be the less objectionable candidate,” said Rogan. “As for Shafiq, he’s going to basically appeal to Egyptians hungry for law and order.”
In the weeks to come, Shafiq’s main goal will be to assure voters that his candidacy does not represent a return to the old regime.
Addressing some of the young people who spearheaded the 2011 revolt on Saturday, Shafik said, "Your revolution has been hijacked and I am committed to bringing (it) back."
But convincing most Egyptian voters will be an uphill task. "The revolutionary martyrs' families will not bear to see Ahmed Shafiq as the head of state," said Egyptian writer Myra Mahdi-Daridan in an interview with FRANCE 24.
For the moment though, Shafiq’s appearance on the ballot paper in the June 16-17 poll is not yet guaranteed.
On June 11, Egypt's top court is expected to rule in a key case examining the constitutionality of a law barring Mubarak-era officials from running for office. The so-called political isolation law was adopted by the Islamist-dominated parliament in April, and was intended to ban the candidacy of all senior Mubarak-era officials.
Shafiq was initially barred from standing in the presidential race, but in late April, Egypt's electoral commission accepted an appeal by the former Egyptian prime minister. The upcoming decision by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court could have immediate implications for Shafik’s bid to be Egypt’s next president.