Egypt Presidential Contenders Vie for Support Before Run-Off

Muslim Brotherhood Presidential Hopeful Mohamed Mursi
The head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party's Mohamed Mursi. Photographer: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi and Hosni Mubarak’s last premier looked to expand their support base as the two most divisive contenders in Egypt’s presidential election headed for a June run-off.

Mursi, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and Ahmed Shafik, who also served as civil aviation minister under Mubarak, emerged as the top two out of a field of 13 candidates running in the first presidential ballot since Mubarak was ousted last year. Preliminary figures show Mursi secured 24.8 percent of the vote against Shafik’s 23.9 percent, according to the state-run Ahram Gate news website. Others, including the state-run Middle East News Agency, put the candidates in the same order. Final results are due on May 29.

The margin separating the two candidates, along with the third-place finish by Hamdeen Sabahi, reflects the divisions that persist in the country more than 15 months after the January 2011 revolution. Sabahi, a socialist favored by many of the revolutionary youth and other secularists, secured about 20.5 percent of the vote.

“It was the blood of the martyrs and the wounded that ignited and fueled the flames of the revolution and gave it energy, self-confidence and unity to advance this homeland and elevate this nation,” Mursi’s campaign said today in a statement on its website. “Today, we need to close ranks once again, so the revolution would not be hijacked from us all.”

Skeptical Voters

Mursi and Shafik face the task of trying to win over voters skeptical that either candidate represents the spirit of the uprising. For many, the Brotherhood is seen as attempting to Islamicize the country, while Shafik is regarded as one of the “feloul,” or remnants, of an ousted regime seeking to re-invent itself. The outcome of the elections may determine how quickly Egypt emerges from the turmoil of the past 15 months, when the transition toward democracy was overshadowed by violence and the economy slumped.

Freedom and Justice Party deputy chief Essam el-Erian said Mursi has begun inviting some of the presidential candidates and the heads of political parties to meet today.

The election was billed as the freest and fairest Egypt has had, offering more than 50 million voters a rare choice of candidates after nearly 60 years of having the president drawn from the ranks of the military and re-elected through rigged ballots. The turnout was estimated at about 45 percent, according to Ahram Gate. In contrast, 62 percent of voters cast their ballots in last year’s parliamentary race that led to the Islamists securing a majority.

Conservative Support

The results show that Mursi lost to both Shafik and Sabahi in Cairo, while finding stronger support in more conservative areas in southern Egypt. Sabahi won in Alexandria, an area seen as an Islamist stronghold.

Islamist candidates such as Mursi and Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh were opposed by secularists who included Shafik and former Arab League chief Amre Moussa, and Sabahi. Aboul-Fotouh garnered 17.4 percent of the vote, according to Ahram Gate figures, while Moussa secured 11.2 percent.

“The key to the second round is turnout, and the key to turnout is whether these guys can appeal to the messy coalitions that were behind the Sabahi and Aboul-Fotouh candidacies,” Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a phone interview. “A lot will depend on whether Mursi and Shafik can extend beyond their bases and reassure others.”

Security Situation

Shafik ran on a law and order platform, capitalizing on Egyptians’ frustration with the deterioration in the security situation since the uprising. He also argued that the Islamists were seeking to drag the country back into the past -- messages that may resonate with the country’s secularists and Coptic Christian minority. On his campaign’s Facebook page, he promised to “implement an environment of freedom” if elected.

The former air force pilot said in an al-Hayat television interview yesterday he would support the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party leading the next government if he wins the presidential post.

“I see nothing wrong that the man who has the parliamentary majority should run the show,” Shafik said.

The Alliance of the Youths’ Revolution, a collation of youth groups, blamed what it said was the Brotherhood’s “monopoly of everything” and divisions among the revolutionaries for Shafik’s advancing to the second round.

‘Worst Outcome’

“From a political stability perspective, it is the worst possible outcome,” Hani Sabra and Ayham Kamel, Middle East analysts at Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed report that argued both candidates face strong opposition among many in the country.

While the military and the Brotherhood may reach a “new accord that would cool tensions, that remains unlikely, and Egypt will likely enter a period of rising tension and uncertainty,” the analysts said. The military has vowed to hand over power to an elected president by the end of June.

Aboul Fotouh, in a statement on his campaign’s website yesterday, called on political groups to form a united front against “the corrupt regime” in the run-off round, without specifically declaring support for Mursi.

The race was seen as key in helping Egypt restore stability in the country and reviving an economy battered in the wake of the uprising.

The central bank has spent almost 60 percent of Egypt’s international reserves since the uprising began in January last year, helping to cap the pound’s losses in the period at 4 percent. Forward contracts show investors expect the currency to lose about 21 percent over the next year.

Borrowing costs have risen to record highs and the government has applied to the International Monetary Fund for a $3.2 billion loan. Talks with the fund are on hold until after the elections.

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