CAIRO – In Egypt's highly polarizing presidential campaign, both sides have been going for the jugular. Wild accusations have been flying, and Egyptians are seeing a return of old tricks that went on under the table during Hosni Mubarak's regime, now used without inhibition.
The campaign, in its final hours Wednesday ahead of the weekend election, is between Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi.
Behind them another competition is going on, between the deeply entrenched police state and their traditional rivals, the Islamists. Shafiq has drawn from what he suggested was information from within the security agencies in hopes of discrediting the Brotherhood, accusing it for example of killing protesters during the anti-Mubarak uprising.
In support of Morsi, meanwhile, Islamists have been fanning out to mosques, telling congregations Shafiq is against Islam, is cozying up to the Christian minority and is perpetuating corruption.
In this foreboding atmosphere, revolutionary groups are escalating calls for a boycott of the election, which they say will only recreate the old regime and do little to resolve the messiness of the transition overseen by the military generals.
Ramy Yacoub, a 29-year-old liberal politician who says he will vote for neither in the upcoming elections, said both are "two sides of the same coin. .. They are both shooting bullets."
Yacoub said the campaigning has been marred by mud-slinging typical of the "primitive electoral culture" Egypt is experiencing during the first competitive presidential vote in its modern history.
"Neither deserves my vote because neither represents what I stand for," he said. "We know we lost the short term battle. In the long term, this is all on the record" to use against whoever wins.
Shafiq, a 70-year-old former air force commander who served as Mubarak's last prime minister but was removed in the face of protests not long after Mubarak fell, has made it his main platform to attack the Brotherhood, stoking fears of the group's lust for power. He accused them of wanting to take Egypt back to the Dark Ages, sidelining Christians and women and trying to reap alone the benefit of a revolution launched primarily by secular youth and later joined by the Brotherhood.
His campaign took a higher pitch this month when he accused the Brotherhood of being behind the killing of the protesters in one of the most iconic moments of last winter's uprising. In a TV interview and later at a press conference, Shafiq claimed "bearded men" on rooftops were the ones firing at protesters during the Battle of the Camels.
The worst and deadliest clashes in the uprising occurred on Feb. 2 when pro-regime thugs on camels and horses and armed with swords and whips waded into crowds of protesters who had been holding a sit-in Tahrir Square since Jan. 28. The clashes, which lasted for two days, saw protesters battling off attackers firing on them from nearby bridges and buildings overlooking the square. The Medieval-style battle proved a turning point, winning the protesters wider popular support.
The accusations caused outrage and were dismissed as a slander by many supporters of the revolution, who consider the Camel Battle as a symbol of the steadfastness of protesters, including the Brotherhood who played a major role in the defense of the sit-in.
A group of 25 former regime officials are on trial, accused of organizing the attack. Shafiq said his claims were based on conversations with military and security and referred to footage from military helicopters from above the square. In a rare move, the intelligence service issued a statement distancing itself from Shafiq's allegations and saying it accuses no one faction in the violence against protesters.
Shafiq was called in to testify in the court hearings following his remarks and is due to appear in court on Thursday.
In another twist from security sources that clearly boosts Shafiq, security officials in north Sinai also accuse Palestinian Islamist factions and other jihadi groups of infiltrating into Egypt and occupying mosques to campaign for Morsi. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Security officials in Cairo have not commented on the claims.
Morsi campaigners call such claims "black propaganda" against their candidate driven by the machine of the old regime. Yasser Ali, a campaign manager for Morsi, said they have detected up to 30 different "rumors" a day against their candidate, their group or supporters.
Parts of Mubarak's old political machine have also geared up for Shafiq. Amr Ezzat, a columnist who is also an active campaigner for rights and freedom of expression, said his father — the head of a public sector company — was asked by former ruling party figures in his Cairo neighborhood in Imbaba to participate in a pro-Shafiq rally. The father turned them down, Ezzat said.
"This is their traditional way of operating," Ezzat, who is also boycotting the vote, told The Associated Press. "Now people in big posts are feeling threatened, they fear they will be replaced or investigated for corruption. Many of those in high posts who were in close contacts with ministers or the political class are afraid that these corruption files would be opened if the leadership is changed. It is in their interest to have this network return."
In a sign of the election-season bitterness, Ezzat had a falling out with a friend, once a rights campaigner like himself who joined the Shafiq campaign.
In a long and profane blog post, Ezzat took his friend to task, saying he sold out his ideas by backing a representative of the old regime.
"When will you stop whoring yourself out?" he wrote — echoing the phrase his father used to refuse the ruling party members.
Shafiq's accusations have won some sympathy for the Brotherhood even among leftist and secular revolutionary groups who had grown critical of the group, which they feel sold out hopes for deeper change after Mubarak's fall and has been more concerned with making political gains.
Ezzat, himself disillusioned with the Brotherhood's performance, is disgusted by how low the campaign has gone, a sign that the post-election era will be equally nasty.
"The debased dialogue is a reflection of a debased situation that we are going through — to accuse the revolutionaries of killing one another?" said Ezzat. "I can't have a dialogue with that."
But the Brotherhood has also relied on its arsenal of clerics and Islamic leaders and mosques to attack Shafiq. The group denies it is orchestrated. But an activist in a local Cairo neighborhood who is connected to Brotherhood members said the group made plans to retaliate on the war against it by resorting to mosque preachers from their more radical supporters, the Salafis.
In their sermons, preachers have been drumming up fear of Shafiq's overtly secular campaign slogans.
Videos are circulating with clips from Shafiq interviews in which he advocates including texts from the Bible in school curriculums to balance the presence of Quranic verses. The video depicts the comments as an attack on Islam, proclaiming, "This is a matter of religion. After what you heard you still want to vote for him ... What will you tell God on Judgment Day?"
In other anti-Shafiq videos, there are pictures of tortured victims under Mubarak's security agents, many of them Islamists. Clerics have also denounced voting for Shafiq and said a vote for Morsi is supported by God.
The polarized atmosphere has strengthened calls among many for Egyptians to boycott the vote or cast spoiled ballots in protest. The campaign has been sharply criticized by Brotherhood supporters, who called it "treason" to the revolution.
For Sally Toma, a leading campaigner for the boycott, choosing a new president will not resolve the more serious problems she and thousands others revolted against. Neither Morsi nor Shafiq, she says, have a place in her dream for deeper change.
In the boycott campaign, she sees the creation of an empowered opposition to whoever comes next.
"No one will die if Morsi and Shafiq come. They are both just secretaries. One with a beard and another in a military uniform," she said.