CAIRO – The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate and a veteran of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime will face each other in a runoff election for Egypt's president, according to first-round results Friday. The divisive showdown dismayed many Egyptians who fear either one means an end to any democratic gains produced by last year's uprising.
More than a year after protesters demanding democracy toppled Mubarak, the face-off between the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi and former air force chief and prime minister Ahmed Shafiq looked like a throwback to the days of his regime — a rivalry between a military-rooted strongman promising a firm hand to ensure stability and Islamists vowing to implement religious law.
"The worst possible scenario," said Ahmed Khairy, spokesman for the Free Egyptians Party, one of the secular, liberal parties that emerged last year. Speaking to the Al-Ahram daily, he described Morsi as an "Islamic fascist" and Shafiq as a "military fascist."
He said he did know which candidate to endorse in the June 16-17. Many Egyptians face the same dilemma, with no figure representing a middle path of reforming a corrupt police state without lurching onto the divisive path of strict implementation of Islamic law.
The head-to-head match between Morsi and Shafiq will likely be a heated one. Each has die-hard supporters but is also loathed by significant sectors of the population.
The first round race, held Wednesday and Thursday, turned out close. By Friday evening, counts from stations around the country reported by the state news agency gave Morsi 25.3 percent and Shafiq 24.9 percent with less than 100,000 votes difference.
A large chunk of the vote — more than 40 percent — went to candidates who were seen as more in the spirit of the revolution that toppled Mubarak, that is neither from the Brotherhood nor from the so-called "feloul," or "remnants" of the old autocratic regime. In particular, those votes went to leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who narrowly came in third in a surprisingly strong showing of 21.5 percent, and a moderate Islamist who broke with the Brotherhood, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.
The Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament and hopes the presidency can seal its rise to power, scrambled to try to draw the revolution vote to its side. It invited other candidates and revolutionary groups to meet Saturday to "save the nation and the revolution" ahead of an expected fierce race.
The Brotherhood likely faces a tough task. Over the past six months, it has disillusioned many of those figures with plays for power that left its would-be allies feeling betrayed and deepened the Brotherhood's reputation as domineering and arrogant.
"Egypt is going through a truly historic transformation," senior Brotherhood figure Essam el-Erian said at a news conference. "We hope the runoff is more heated, more clear and more representative of the spirit of the January 25 revolution."
Shafiq's camp was making a similar appeal.
"We know the Muslim Brotherhood stole the revolution from the youth," said Shafiq's spokesman, Ahmed Sarhan. "Our program is about the future. The Muslim Brotherhood is about an Islamic empire. That is not what (the youth groups) called for" in the revolution.
The breakdown of the first round voting provided multiple surprises.
Shafiq's strong showing would have been inconceivable a year ago amid the public's anti-regime fervor. He was Mubarak's last prime minister and was himself forced out of office by protests several weeks after his former boss was ousted.
A former air force commander and personal friend of Mubarak, he campaigned overtly as an "anti-revolution" candidate in the presidential election, criticizing the revolutionary protesters. He still inspires venom from many who believe he will preserve the Mubarak-style autocracy. He has been met at public appearances by protesters throwing shoes.
But his rise underlines the frustration with the revolution felt by many Egyptians. The past 15 months have seen continuous chaos, with a shipwrecked economy, a breakdown in public services, increasing crime and persistent protests that turned into bloody riots. That has left many craving stability.
Nevine George, a 36-year-old Christian and government employee, said she voted for Shafiq because she didn't want to endure a new experiment in governing Egypt.
"Even if he's from the old system ... we need management skills. And we don't have to start from scratch," she said after voting in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra.
Egypt's Christian minority — about 10 percent of the population of 82 million — overwhelmingly backed Shafiq, seeing him as a bulwark against the Islamist Brotherhood. One TV station reported that the entire voting population of one southern village — 4,000 Christians — cast ballot for Shafiq.
Shafiq also rallied former members of Mubarak's party and influential and widespread Muslim mystical sects known as Sufis, who fear the Brotherhood, which advocates implementing a harder line version of Islamic law. Analysts said Shafiq has also gained support from the families of security men — as security personnel themselves are not allowed to vote.
Meanwhile, though Morsi came out on top, the vote was a blow to the Brotherhood. Their candidate received only half the vote that the group garnered in parliamentary elections late last year when it took nearly 50 percent of the legislature.
Since then, many of those who backed it grew disenchanted. Some voters said they turned against it because it failed to bring any improvements with its hold on parliament. Others were turned off by its seeming determination to monopolize power, excluding others.
In the end, Morsi was left to rely largely on the group's fiercely loyal and organized base of activists.
Perhaps most surprising was the performance of Sabahi, who had lagged far back in the polls for much of the campaign.
But he surged in the final days before voting began as Egyptians looked for an alternative to both Islamists and the "feloul." Campaigning on promises to help the poor, Sabahi claimed the mantle of the nationalist, socialist ideology of former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who ruled from 1954 to 1970.
"The results reflect that people are searching for a third alternative, those who fear a religious state and those who don't want Mubarak's regime to come back," said Sabahi campaign spokesman Hossam Mounis.
Sabahi dominated in many urban areas, narrowly coming in first in Cairo and Port Said — a hotbed of revolution sentiment. He overpoweringly won in Egypt's second largest city, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, doubling Morsi's showing, even though the city is considered a stronghold of Islamists.
Not far behind him was Abolfotoh, with around 19 percent. A moderate Islamist, Abolfotoh had appealed to a broad spectrum, including Islamists disenchanted with the Brotherhood and liberals.
A major question will be whether the two runoff candidates can draw in their backers. Islamists who voted for Abolfotoh are likely to turn to Morsi, despite their mistrust of the Brotherhood. Liberals, leftists and secular voters who rallied behind either Abolfotoh or Sabahi are likely to feel at a loss.
Abolfotoh called on his supporters to unite against the return of the former regime.
"We will build a national revolutionary consensus around the current issues and we will stand one line in the face of the symbols of corruption, injustices, oppression. Our revolution will triumph," he said in a statement on his Web site.