By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
Once again Egyptians find themselves facing the unknown. The results of the first round of presidential elections were inconclusive and a runoff vote will take place in three weeks’ time to determine who will become the country’s first freely elected president. But even then Egyptians will remain polarized. Now they have to choose between two candidates who represent two divergent futures for the country.
But the choice will not be easy for the majority of voters. Last week’s elections, described as the freest in the country’s history, showed that secular candidates received more than 50 percent of the votes, but Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) came in first with about 25 percent — in contrast to the 40 percent which the movement’s candidates won in parliamentary elections last January.
The biggest surprise was the unexpected rise of independent candidate and last prime minister under President Hosni Mubarak, retired Gen. Ahmad Shafiq. He came in second after winning 24 percent of the votes. His success represented a defeat to the forces of the January 25 revolution which toppled Mubarak last year. Shafiq’s opponents describe him as feloul; a remnant of the old regime. His success has baffled observers and left many Egyptians bewildered. Other candidates, who were supposed to do well, like former Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, performed badly. But socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi’s miraculous feat at the polls — he came in third place — underlined the fact that millions of Egyptians believe there is a third choice.
Until the runoff vote between Mursi of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Shafiq takes place in June, both candidates will attempt to appease the large and critical mass of voters who remain on the sidelines. The Islamists know that their popularity in the streets has been reduced, largely due to the poor and chaotic performance of MB leadership and its candidates in Parliament.
Morsi has vowed to open up to all political forces including the secular youth who insist on a civil state. On the other hand, Shafiq has distanced himself from the old regime and promised to reclaim the hijacked revolution and hand it over to its rightful owners.
Earlier attempts by Mursi to woo Sabahi and Abul Fotouh were unsuccessful. And it is unlikely that Shafiq will be endorsed by major political players. Still Shafiq’s chances in the second round are not slim. He will rely on the important Coptic vote and on the fact that many middle class Egyptians would not want to see their country governed by an Islamist president who believes in a Shariah-ruled state.
Shafiq may still be able to mobilize those voters who opted to stay home last week, while Mursi will depend on the efficiency of the MB’s voting structure. It is likely that many Salafis, who were backing Abul Fotouh, will now support him in the second round.
This uncertainty is new to Egypt. Previous presidential elections reeked of fraud and corruption. Now and in spite of the ambiguity of the future, Egyptians are celebrating their nascent democracy. Their choice in the runoff will be historic and will have a dramatic effect on the entire region.
Despite all the surprises the current showdown makes a lot of sense. The first republic was born out of close collaboration between the MB and the Free Officers movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which overthrew the monarchy in 1952. But that partnership was short-lived. Nasser rejected the MB’s political program and in 1954 he banned the movement and waged war against it. Today the second republic is facing the same difficult choice, which was put on hold for six decades. But the Arab Spring has altered the rules of the game.
Egypt’s woes will not be over after a new president is elected. Mursi’s success will bring Parliament and the presidency under the MB’s control. Many Egyptians are worried that such concentration of power will recreate the ruling party saga of the last 30 years. There are no guarantees that the Islamists will honor their promises to maintain a civil state and protect the rights of women and minorities. And such a scenario will have a direct effect on the nature of the new constitution which will outline the president’s authorities.
On the other hand, if Shafiq wins the day then the revolution may erupt again. His victory will drive many of Egypt’s frustrated youth back to Tahrir Square, while he will face a hostile legislature. One political activist, George Ishaq, said the results of the first round have placed Egyptians between the hammer and the anvil.
On Twitter Egyptian activists reacted to last week’s events. One asked: Did we sacrifice 1,000 martyrs to get rid of the old system only to see a Mubarak loyalist score such a big victory? A Shafiq supporter had this to say: The revolution brought havoc and Shafiq will restore law and order and bring stability.
Many Egyptians have grown tired and frustrated over the past year. They want to see a strong man at the helm, someone who can salvage the economy and stop the Islamist tide. It is ironic that for years Mubarak had rejected calls for reforms saying that it was either him or the Islamists. Now that he is gone, it appears that he was right!
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.