CAIRO – While Egypt's first free presidential election was supposed to be a referendum on Egypt's future, it has turned into an ominous replay of Egypt's past.
The two candidates who won the largest number of votes and now face a run-off in mid-June represent two traditional power centers that have battled each other for decades – ousted President Hosni Mubarak's once omnipotent "secular" security regime that has ruled Egypt since 1952, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old organization that has struggled under-and-above ground to turn Egypt into an Islamic state.
The Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi (25.3%) and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq (24.9%) won the most votes. Both men have already begun trying to win the support of the third and fourth most popular candidates -- leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi (who won roughly 21.5%) and a moderate Islamist who broke with the Brotherhood, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh (who garnered some 19%).
The initial outcome hugely disappointed the youth movement that succeeded in mobilizing the mass protests in Tahrir Square that ended President Mubarak's 30- year rule in only 18 days. Al Ahram, a leading Egyptian paper, quoted Ahmed Khairy, a spokesman for the secular, liberal Free Egyptians Party, as calling the initial round's outcome "the worst possible scenario" for Egypt. He said that Egyptians now faced a choice between Morsi, an "Islamic fascist" and Shafiq, a "military fascist."
Henry Precht, a retired foreign service officer who spent many years in Egypt, said that the first round results suggested that the ideology of the revolution "didn't reach much beyond Tahrir Square." "And those in the Square didn't know how, or couldn't come together to create a program, party, and leader they could follow."
The turnout, too, was disappointing. While some 54 percent of Egyptians voted late last year to choose members of their first freely elected parliament, only about 43 percent of eligible voters turned out to choose a president this week. The drop in turnout reflected the dissatisfaction of so many Egyptians with the performance of the parliament, where the Brotherhood and its fundamentalist "Salafist" Islamist allies control roughly two-thirds of the seats. The virtual war between the Islamist-dominated legislature and the army-appointed executive resulted in stalemate on many key issues and the government's inability to address Egypt's grave economic crisis.
Amr Bargisi, a writer and activist who heads a group that campaigns for freedom and civil liberties in Egypt, said it was hard to predict whom voters who had supported the leftist "nostalgia" candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi or the self-styled "moderate" Islamist Fotouh would wind up supporting in the next and final round next month. But he predicted that those who had favored the revolution in Tahrir were more likely to support Morsi, the MB candidate, because he represented a sharp break with the past; Egyptians, by contrast, who were skeptical of the uprisings and cared more about keeping their country secular and secure would ultimately support Shafiq, the former air force chief who has campaigned on the theme of reducing crime and assuring "stability." But barring dramatic new developments, he added, Morsi, the MB candidate, had to be considered the favorite, particularly if voter turnout in the second round proves weak.
Doug Schoen, a pollster and Fox News contributor who conducted a survey before the parliamentary elections last year that showed the Brotherhood in the lead, agreed that Morsi, the MB's candidate, had to be considered the front-runner, given his party's simple consistent theme – "Islam is the solution" to Egypt's pressing woes. "Almost all the analysts got the presidential race wrong because they focused on the race's personalities as opposed to the power of their brand," he said. "The Muslim Brotherhood has a very powerful brand."
But Abdelmonem Said Aly, who heads the Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies, said that Shafiq could still win if Christians and other Eygptians who fear an Islamist state turned out heavily. More voters supported the various "secular" candidates than the Islamist ones, he noted. Roughly 12 million Egyptians voted for Shafiq, Sabbahi, the devotee of the late Nasser, and Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak – a total of 2 million more votes than the Brotherhood received at the peak of its popularity. Moreover, he added, while the Brotherhood had gotten 10 million votes in the parliamentary elections six months ago, its candidate Morsi got only half as many votes this time around.
"But neither Morsi nor Shafiq can be considered democratic or liberal," he concluded.
Analysts said that the coming weeks would see deals and rumors of deals allegedly made between the two competitors and those whose support each was seeking. Maged Atef, a politically well-connected tour guide who helped several foreign journalists cover the elections, called the outcome of the presidential contest's first round ironic. "With the country split roughly evenly between those who support the Brotherhood and those who support the feloul, or left-overs of the old regime," he said, "those who despise both candidates– who would like to vote for 'none of the above' as president-- may well wind up deciding which of the men they love to hate wins."