CAIRO // The Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, promised yesterday to ensure full rights for Christians and women.
The Islamist candidate, who faces Ahmed Shafiq in a run-off set for June 16 and 17, also seemed to be appealing to pro-democracy demonstrators, saying during a news conference in Cairo that if he is elected as Egypt's next president, the right to stage peaceful protests would be protected.
"Our Christian brothers, let's be clear, are national partners and have full rights like Muslims," Mr Morsi said.
Egypt's Christians account for about 10 per cent of the country's 82-million people.
Mr Morsi spoke hours after Mr Shafiq's campaign headquarters were torched by protesters following an electoral commission announcement that he would face the Brotherhood contender in the run-off.
Kamal Al Ganzuri, the prime minister, was scheduled to meet cabinet ministers and governors last night to discuss the disturbance. Police said eight suspects were arrested near the office following the attack.
In the news conference, Mr Morsi called for a broad coalition government and said that the country's new constitution would be written by a panel that represents the diversity of the nation.
This effort to broaden his appeal is part of the shift in campaign strategy that analysts say was expected from both candidates between now and next month's vote.
"There's going to be a new debate that falls onto new lines," said Mohammed Naeem of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
He said Mr Shafiq, the last prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, would likely try to appeal Coptic Christians' fears of exclusion and sectarianism. Coptic Christians were often barred from holding top government and university posts under Mubarak, who stepped down as president in February last year.
Before the first round of voting in the presidential race, many Copts expressed concerns that an Islamist-dominated parliament and executive branch would mean further oppression.
"It's easy to agitate these fears in Egypt," said Mr Naeem, "That wasn't the case the first time around."
He said Egypt's new president would likely be given vastly different powers than Mubarak had under an emergency law that was in place for 30 years
"With both Shafiq and Morsi in the run-off, the position of president itself won't be as important as before. The new constitution will likely sit the real power between the Muslim Brotherhood majority [in parliament] and the army," said Mr Naeem.
In the first round of voting, Mr Morsi took 24.3 per cent of the vote, while Mr Shafiq came in second with 23.2 per cent. The leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi came third with 20.71 per cent, while the early favourite, the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, garnered 17.47 per cent of the vote.
The run-off between Mr Morsi and Mr Shafiq leaves those who led last year's uprising that forced Mubark to step down with a difficult choice. For many the election of former regime member Mr Shafiq would mean the protests failed, but a win for the Islamist Mr Morsi could challenge the liberties they fought for.
"Because Sabahi and Fotouh could be considered from the same bloc, the revolutionary bloc actually got around 40 per cent of the vote. Of course these voters feel betrayed, but they've been betrayed by themselves," Mr Naem said.
While 46 per cent of the 50 million eligible voters cast ballots in the first round, Mr Naeem said the run-off would probably have a low turnout, which could threaten the legitimacy of the candidates.
"The Muslim Brotherhood will mobilise supporters in the same way it did during the first round, Shafiq will have to try something new," he said. "The vast majority of those who voted for Fotouh or Sabahi will sit out."
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press