It appeared that when Egyptian voters entered the polling stations, many were drawn towards the two most polarising candidates.
Egypt's showdown: Brotherhood vs a Mubarak man
CAIRO // With nearly all the votes counted yesterday in Egypt's first free presidential election, it appears the race will come down to a run-off between a former member of the regime of Hosni Mubarak and the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that has long opposed the establishment.
The Supreme Presidential Election Commission is expected by Tuesday to make a formal announcement about the run-off scheduled for June 16 and 17. But informal calculations by newspapers, campaign advisers and election monitors who had access to tallies in each station showed the race would come down to Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who served as Mr Mubarak's last prime minister during last year's uprising, and Mohammed Morsi, an American-educated engineer and Muslim Brotherhood member.
It appeared that when voters entered the polling stations, many were drawn towards the two most polarising candidates. Mr Morsi took the most votes, 25 per cent, and Mr Shafiq came in second with 23 per cent, according to television news channel Al Arabiya last night. Election rules require a run-off if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Mr Morsi would represent a radical change for Egyptian leadership because he is a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an 83-year-old Islamist group that has long operated underground because it was banned by the government.
Mr Shafiq, who like Mr Mubarak was the head of the air force, is seen by many as a safer choice because he fits into the succession of strong-armed, military rulers who have led Egypt since a revolution in 1952 that overthrew the monarchy and British rule. He has also portrayed himself as a bulwark against rising Islamism, especially after the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al Nour Party won more than 70 per cent of the seats in parliament.
Abdel Moneim Said, the director of the state-run Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said he believed Mr Morsi would prevail in the run-off because he would draw the support of the Islamists who voted for other Islamist candidates in the first round. He predicted many liberals would simply abstain in the second round because neither of the front-runners represented the revolutionary principles that led to the uprising.
"In my view, it reflects the defeat of the bright side of the revolution, the romantic side," he said. "In the end, we will have to choose between two forces that believe in ideological dominance and hierarchical politics. Neither are democratic or liberal."
Activists and analysts yesterday rued the divisiveness of liberals and pro-revolution voters, which has hampered their cause since parliamentary voting that finished in February.
The cast of liberals in the centre of the political spectrum, including Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a self-styled liberal Islamist; and Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist; took nearly half of the overall votes between them, but none of them will make it to the second round. Polls had indicated up to last week that Mr Moussa and Mr Aboul Fotouh were the front-runners.
"This is the worst scenario that could be predicted," said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. "The division of the revolutionary forces has finally led to this polarised situation, which is not good at all for the country."
Mr Nafaa said the country was at a "terrible crossroads".
"Either we choose the Muslim Brotherhood, who I don't think have a good political project at all, or we continue with the old regime," he said. "Voting for Ahmed Shafiq is the same as voting for Mubarak."
Mr Morsi's chances of making it to the second round were long underestimated by analysts because he entered the race as a backup candidate to Khairat Al Shater, a charismatic businessman and former deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Mr Al Shater was disqualified in April, along with several others, Mr Morsi's campaign appeared a tepid alternative that would struggle to gain a foothold in a race populated with more well-known figures.
But the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated for the second time this year that its organisational prowess and network of members across the country could marshal a huge number of votes. The group says it will herald a "renaissance" for Egypt by restoring political and economic justice and investing heavily in education and health care.
Mr Shafiq's campaign has been thin on details, but he has gained support because of his anti-Islamist stance and his promise to restore security. The country has been plagued by crime since the uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak.
The run-off would likely put pressure on voters to choose a leader based on fear, rather than their platforms, said Michele Dunne, the director of the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council.
"A lot of people will be voting against the other candidate, rather than the candidate they really like," she said. "It's going to offer some difficult choices."
The square-off between Mr Morsi and Mr Shafiq will have repercussions on the writing of the constitution and the balance of powers in the government, Ms Dunne said.
If Mr Morsi is elected, the parliament and presidency would work together against the military. Mr Shafiq, who is seen as close to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, would likely use support from the military to hold the parliament in check if he wins.
As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Morsi could also cooperate with his fellow members in parliament to actually reduce the power of the presidency and push the country towards a parliamentarian system.
"He may see his job as giving away power, so that the Muslim Brotherhood's wider project can take off," Ms Dunne said. "If you elect Shafiq, I don't think that will be the case."