The first-round results of the Egyptian presidential elections are by no means ideal, but they offer some hope for the emergence of a normal liberal democracy.
The need to attract independent, swing voters helps form consensus. Thus, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, is showing that he recognizes that he must make pledges to win over voters outside his party’s base: women (especially non-hijab-wearing women) and Christians.
Mr. Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, the remaining candidates, were only 1.1 percentage points apart on the first round, and they are now courting the 50.3 per cent of the voters who chose other candidates.
Mr. Shafiq is abhorrent to many, having been a high official of the old regime that lasted for 60 years: a former commander of the air force, aviation minister and, briefly, prime minister. But if he wins in the second round on June 16 and 17 and becomes president, he would counterbalance the dominance of Islamists in the parliament, in a political order with some resemblance to the division of powers between the president and Congress in the United States. On balance, that would be the preferable outcome.
Even the polling has been surprisingly accurate in a country with so little experience of democracy; Mr. Shafiq’s rise from marginality to a close second appeared in polls and anecdotal evidence alike.
Some secular liberal activists are so indignant at the resurfacing of Mr. Shafiq, one of the leading colleagues of Hosni Mubarak, the former president, that they are supporting the Islamist, Mr. Morsi – perhaps perversely, but comparably strange coalitions and alliances are often found in long-standing democracies, too.
No Egyptian head of state has ever been elected by the people before – not the Pharaoh Narmer, who united Upper and Lower Egypt in the 32nd century B.C., or any of his successors.
A victory in June for either Mr. Morsi or Mr. Shafiq will in some degree be a reversion to a past era, but the new president’s mandate from the voters will set a powerful precedent.