Islamists Set the Pace, But Egypt’s Presidential Race Looks Set to Go to a Runoff

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MAHMUD HAMS / AFP / GettyImages

Egyptians wait in a queue at a polling station in Cairo on May 23, 2012, during the country's first presidential election since a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Farmers and laborers have waited for hours in a long line outside the polling station in the impoverished village of Kirdasah, on Cairo’s western outskirts, but their spirits are high.

Most are here to vote for the same candidate. “It’s a rural town so everyone here is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Soaad Abdullah Wahab, a 40-year-old housewife, waiting to mark her ballot for the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsy. “It’s because people here are more attached to religion.”

And it’s not just Kirdasah. Judging by informal exit polls from the first democratic presidential election in Egypt‘s history, a great number of Egyptians — possibly many more than expected — are similarly “attached to religion.”

More than a year after a popular uprising ended the 30-year-reign of President Hosni Mubarak, the first presidential race of the so-called Arab Spring has pitted the former officials of the ousted regime against the Islamists that it once banned and imprisoned. The Brotherhood captured the lion’s share of parliamentary seats last winter, but prospects for a similar showing by its presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsy, had been widely dismissed by pundits ahead of this week’s vote. Morsy was labeled uncharismatic and unpopular by the Egyptian news media, while many analysts believed he had thrown his hat in the ring too late. Even if the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party may be the most organized show in town, analysts and political rivals believed that not all of the movement’s supporters would simply back whichever candidate was endorsed by the Brotherhood’s leadership. And Morsy had been a last-minute choice — a “spare tire” as his critics have derisively called him — after the original Brotherhood pick, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified by an electoral commission chosen by the ruling military.

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But the naysayers may have miscalculated. It’s hard to determine whether Morsy is in the lead, but he’s clearly doing far better than anyone had expected. And as electoral officials begin counting the ballots after the polls close at 9 p.m. Thursday, the Brotherhood may well have to prepare itself for a run-off. By late afternoon, all five of the frontrunner candidates, including two Islamists, two former regime ministers, and a pan-Arab nationalist, claimed to be in the lead. A five-way tie is highly improbable, but analysts say a run-off vote in June between the two leading candidates — guaranteed if no candidate captures more than 50% of the votes — is almost certain.

The Brotherhood says it’s the movement’s discipline and organization that trumped the rivals in the end. “We have more experience,” said one Brotherhood official, Khaled Tantawy, matter-of-factly, as the men around him tapped on computers in one of the group’s operations centers in the poor Cairo suburb of Shubra al-Kheima on Wednesday. The group’s observers, spread out at polling stations across the country, have provided their local offices with regular updates and reports of violations over the two days of voting, while tables of volunteers run outdoor help centers to guide Egyptians to their polling stations. The latter is a tactic that worked well for the Islamists during parliamentary elections — so well, perhaps, that supporters of another Islamist candidate and possible contender for the run-off, the more liberal former Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, followed suit.

But the Islamists certainly face a strong opposition, spurred — they allege —  by the ruling military and state media. Indeed, another underrated frontrunner who has surged into the foreground this week is Mubarak’s former Prime Minister and ex commander of the Air Force, Ahmed Shafik. Liberal youth and Islamists say Shafik, along with the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, are “felool” candidates — remnants of the old regime. Voters pelted Shafik with shoes as he visited a polling station on Wednesday. And many of the same youth activists who participated in last year’s uprising have fought hard to discredit the men who they say want nothing more than to restore the old order.

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But Shafik’s surge in popularity — and indeed Moussa’s popularity all along — underscores a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with Egyptian revolutionaries: some people miss the old order. And many others are willing to vote for a candidate associated with it, if it means a return to pre-revolution social stability. As voters stuffed their choices into plastic ballot boxes near the Giza pyramids, many lamented the rising atmosphere of insecurity since the uprising, and the disastrous effect that more than a year of political turmoil has had on the tourism industry — a sector that generates the livelihoods of many Egyptians. “We’re all voting for Ahmed Shafik,” said Hag Gabr, a factory owner. “We’re not here for the oil, the sugar, and the 20 pounds,” he added, referring to rumors of material support handed out by the Muslim Brotherhood in the days ahead of the vote. “We’re here for the safety and security.”

Many who voted for Moussa or Shafik explained they were motivated by their sheer opposition to the Islamists. And many Christians, who make up roughly 10% of Egypt’s 85 million, said they voted for Shafik because the Coptic church had pushed them toward the most anti-Islamist choice. “Voting for the Brotherhood was a mistake we made once,” said Hassan Saqr, a businessman, referring to the parliamentary election. “But they cheated us and lied to us. They told us they’d bring security and put people in good jobs, and none of that happened.” Saqr voted for Ahmed Shafik too.

The run-off will likely prove even fiercer than first round, once 13 candidates have been whittled down to two. Those two could include Mohamed Morsy, Ahmed Shafik, Amr Moussa, or Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh.

And although monitors and voters reported a relatively clean process with few violations — at least compared to the intimidation, violence and fraud of Mubarak-era elections, — allegations of rigging and other irregularities (filed mostly against Shafik and Morsy) could still tip the end game. Monitors affiliated with the Islamist candidates accused monitoring judges of pressing illiterate voters to choose Shafik, and claimed his campaign of bussed people in. The other side accused the Muslim Brotherhood of handing out food — indeed, villagers in Kirdasah admitted to having received it — and local media reported by Thursday evening that most of the candidates had violated electoral rules. God knows who’s going to win, many Egyptians said, when asked for their predictions. Osman Mohamed Azmi, a government bureaucrat, was one who wouldn’t say who he voted for as he exited a polling station in central Cairo. “But,” he added, “I feel like a first class Egyptian citizen, who stated his opinion.”

With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani

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