Polarizing Candidates Emerge for Egypt's Runoff Election

"Revolution once again" reads over graffiti depicting a chained ballot box being controlled by Egypt's ruling military council at Tahrir Square in Cairo Photograph by Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, after a first round of voting, Egyptian authorities announced the candidates who will vie to be Egypt’s first president since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011. One of them endorses violence, considers Hosni Mubarak a role model, and subscribes to the oddly persistent theory that Egyptians are a genetically obedient people, as described in a recent New York Times story. The other candidate is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Neither man was what young liberal revolutionaries had in mind when they demanded a new Egypt. In fact, many observers have called an election between Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak crony, and Mohamed Mursi, a conservative Islamist, the most polarizing situation imaginable. They will face each other in the runoff round of voting on June 16th and 17th.

In some ways—and with the benefit of hindsight—this was the most predictable outcome. In a climate of deteriorating security, people cling to parties that promise stability—especially, as some experts point out, when the state-run media has exploited such fears. Mursi’s Brotherhood is the most powerful and organized political group outside the military. While Shafiq represents the loathsome old guard, it’s the only governing force many Egyptians have ever known.

This election amounts to a further indictment of Mubarak’s catastrophic stranglehold on civic and political life, as well as of the chaotic and repressive post-revolutionary transition: Egyptians didn’t have so many good options in 2012. This may be why a surprising number stayed home on election day. Only 46 percent voted in this, Egypt’s first real democratic election, which took place on May 23 and 24. Shafiq and Mursi garnered about 5.5 million votes each in a country of 50 million eligible voters.

In the next weeks, however, each will be desperate to appeal to a wider range of voters. The Brotherhood has struggled since it gained control of Parliament, losing the support of even some of its members after appearing power-hungry and self-serving. During the first phase of this election, Mursi lurched to the right, appealing to conservative Muslim voters with promises of Shariah and stringent family values. The question is whether the Brotherhood’s sleek political machine can convince voters that Mursi will represent the Egyptian people, not just the Muslim Brotherhood. No one really knows how such a calculating and careful opposition group will behave once it is actually in power.

The force the Brotherhood would have to contend with is the military, which learned during the Mubarak years how to demonize Islamists when convenient. Westerners also tend to view Egypt through a secularist vs. Islamist lens. But with the military still maintaining power, the larger issue is whether authoritarianism or real democracy will triumph. Egypt had an apparently free election, but the demands of Egypt’s revolutionaries have not been met. Monday night, amid reports that the election was rigged in Shafiq’s favor, Egyptians set fire to his campaign headquarters. Whoever wins, the new president will inherit a revolution that is ongoing.

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