Is Egypt’s Old Regime Preparing a Comeback Crackdown?

Close friends of Ahmed Shafik are confident that he'll win the presidency, and prevent any revival of the Tahrir Square protest movement.

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Manu Brabo / AP

An Egyptian man casts his vote at a polling station in Alexandria, Egypt, Saturday, June 16, 2012.

To those Egyptians voting for the Muslim Brotherhood‘s candidate in this weekend’s polarized presidential runoff election, Al-Tagamu al-Khamis is the kind of place that epitomizes the corruption and inequalities of the Mubarak order. A satellite city where shopping malls, high-rise apartments and luxury villas seem to be in a perpetual state of construction or gleaming newness, its sprinklers conjure greenery from a desert landscape. Luxury cars sit outside the desert Starbucks. Al-Tagamu al-Khamis — literally, “the fifth settlement” — is one of a number of suburbs that have sprouted in recent years to accommodate the flight of Cairo’s wealthier classes. To the poor, such wealthy suburbs represent Egypt‘s ever-widening income gap. And it is home to Ahmed Shafik, once prime minister to President Hosni Mubarak and now the presidential candidate running to shut the Muslim Brotherhood out of power — a cause helped by the ruling junta having now dissolved the elected parliament dominated by the Islamists. Saturday found Shafik voting in Al-Tagamu al-Khamis, amid a heavy security cordon and an entourage of old friends from the Mubarak regime, some shouting “We love you, President.”

Although Shafik draws much of his support from Egypt’s upper crust and well-connected bureaucrats, his presidential runoff against the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy in the country’s first ever-democratic presidential election is not simply a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. Shafik is also attractive to poor workers in the tourism industry, secular military loyalists, and many Christians and moderate Egyptian Muslims who prefer a familiar regime to the Islamists who might replace it.

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Many Islamists insist a Shafik win could be achieved only through ballot fraud. “The military council has been dealing with Shafik, and preparing him to be president,” says Mohamed Salah, a law student in the village of Abul Nomroos, south of Cairo. “It’s strange that 30 million people voted for parliament and it’s dissolved, while the military council that no one voted for is still in power.” But Shafik still may win fair and square because, as dismal liberals and moderates put it warily, the choices are just too grim.

A choice between the old regime and the Islamists was not how most Egyptians envisaged their political choices when they embarked on the transition to democracy following Mubarak’s ouster. Yet almost 18 months later, the presidential runoff appears to be a referendum on change, a contest between stability and a risky new political experiment that could bring Islamist rule. Says one Morsy voter, Idriss Mohamed: “We’re not with Morsy because we love him personally. We’re with him because we want to change this environment. We’ve lived in bitterness for years.”

Both sides seem confident that the majority of Egyptians share their view. And indeed, when election officials begin to count the ballots on Sunday night after two days of voting nationwide, it may well be a tight race. But it’s also a deeply polarized one that may yet serve up a harsh lesson to anyone who thought a democratic transition out of decades of authoritarianism would be easy.

Shafik’s supporters are extra confident, perhaps, because it would seem that the ruling military is on their side. On Thursday, the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the uprising’s only tangible accomplishment thus far: its democratically elected parliament, which the Muslim Brotherhood had dominated. The move swiftly eliminated the Islamists’ only center of power in a system that has yet to see a new constitution drafted or even the next president’s powers defined. And while many liberals said the military may have manipulated the verdict, they also said the Brotherhood had gotten greedy — seeking too much power, too soon, and they deserved what they got.

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To Shafik’s allies, the dissolution of parliament brought them one step closer to victory. “The Muslim Brotherhood was not expecting this. They’re shocked!” Hassan Abdelbaky, a former fighter pilot who has been a close friend of Shafik’s for decades, told TIME on Saturday. The court also ruled Thursday against a law that the Brotherhood had pushed forward to exclude Shafik from the race. “[The Brotherhood] convinced themselves that the court might take Ahmed out — or at least, that the parliament would stay. But they weren’t counting on a full punch like Muhammad Ali — knocked down!” says Abdelbaky. “So now they’ve become, in my opinion as a fighter pilot, like a wounded wolf. They will attack from any side — you can’t predict it. But I think the police and the army are ready.” He beamed over gold-rimmed sunglasses.

The other side says it’s ready too, to stop its so-called revolution from being stolen away. “From the beginning, I was with the revolution. But the court ruling made it more urgent. Now it’s life or death,” said Wael Ramadan, a Cairo accountant who had voted for Morsy. A Shafik win would be a disaster, he said. “If that happens, the revolution will just rise again, but this time it will be as violent as Syria or Libya.” At the very least, many say, they’ll return to Tahrir Square.

But we saw how that ended the first time, Shafik’s campaign organizers are fond of saying, and they warn that a President Shafik would not allow a repeat of the protest movement that brought down Mubarak.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is fighting — it’s their last chance,” says the former Air Marshall’s friend Abdelbaky. “But Ahmed is a man who, in the Air Force, and even as a civilian, is always preparing different plans, and the first thing he’ll do, is he’ll definitely make rules for when you can demonstrate. If you are coming to demonstrate, you must take permission for the time and place. I think that’s what Ahmed will do first,” he says, and Abdelbaky is sure that’s what he’ll have to do. “After the circumstances of these last few weeks, the situation is clear: the Brotherhood will not win.”

— With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani/ Cairo
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