Egyptians face a stark choice when they go to the polls June 16 and 17 in a runoff election for president – the first time a national leader will be chosen by the people in a free and fair vote.
In one corner stands Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, who, in step with the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, would move the country closer to becoming an Islamic republic.
In the other corner stands Ahmed Shafik, a leading member of the Hosni Mubarak regime. A former chief of the air force, General (retired) Shafik is best known for being an efficient minister of civil aviation and Mr. Mubarak's pick to be prime minister in the dying days of the regime. He would try to put the brakes on the Islamist trend.
The choice, between an autocratic past and an Islamist future, is made even more stark because a majority of Egyptians wanted neither option on the final ballot.
Mr. Morsi, the Islamist, captured only 24.9 per cent of the vote in the first round of balloting this past week; Gen. Shafik took 24.4 per cent. Almost 51 per cent of voters chose other options, such as the Nasserist candidate Hamdein Sabbahy, the one-time foreign minister Amr Moussa, or the more moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, from among the other 11 candidates.
Indeed, the largest single group of eligible voters is those who did not vote at all: 56.7 per cent of registered Egyptians did not cast a ballot in this, an historic first presidential election!
This makes the narrowness of the Brotherhood's and the old guard's constituency even greater.
Yet one of these men will become president.
Ironically, neither candidate was even going to run in this election. Mr. Morsi was a last-minute replacement when the Brotherhood's first choice for candidate, the movement's ideologue (and popular and wealthy financier) was disqualified by the electoral council for having a criminal record.
Even doubly ironic, the Brothers had initially decided not to field a candidate at all, but changed their minds at the 11th hour.
Gen. Shafik was ruled disqualified by the same electoral council for his alleged crimes as prime minister during the popular uprising, a ruling that was only overturned on appeal to the courts, allowing the former Mubarak official to run after all.
Gen. Shafik was not the most popular candidate in this race. In Upper Egypt, last week, near the southern city of Qena, he and his entourage were surrounded by a threatening mob, forcing the candidate who ran on a law-and-order platform to cancel the rest of his tour in the region.
Then, on Wednesday this week, the first day of the two-day vote, an angry crowd confronted the man as he cast his ballot in Cairo and threw shoes at him.
The second runner-up in Egypt’s presidential race, Mr. Sabbahy, called Saturday for a partial vote recount. Mr. Sabahy’s lawyer said he would demand that the electoral committee halt the election until alleged voting irregularities had been investigated and until the constitutional court rules on whether Gen. Shafik was legally eligible to run, Reuters reported.
If anyone epitomized the old regime, it was Gen. Shafik, and he was unapologetic about it, using that status to his advantage. He was the standard bearer for the old regime and a lifeline for the country's Christians who worried about the consequences for them if the country became an Islamic state.
As a result, the Christian community voted as one for him, accounting for a large portion of his vote.
The Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported Saturday that Tarek al-Zomor, a member of the Shura council of the Salafist Gamaa Islamiya organization, called on Christians to apologize if it is proven they voted collectively for Gen. Shafik.
Mr. al-Zomor said that church instructions directing Christians to vote for Gen. Shafik were a “grave mistake.”
(This is rather brazen considering it was the Gamaa Islamiya that terrorized Christian communities in the 1990s and only recently renounced violence.)
Looking forward, Brother Morsi will have a hard time getting the required 50 per cent plus one of votes to win this race.
The 24.9 per cent of votes in the first round this week was only about half the size of the vote the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party got in the parliamentary elections at the start of the year.
Since that time, people appear to have cooled in their affection for the movement, accusing it of wasting time in parliament dealing with trivial matters and trying to repeal Mubarak era laws that established women's rights in several areas.
They also have trouble seeing Mr. Morsi, an uninspiring personal figure, as president.
Even other Islamists, such as the substantial Salafist community, are not certain to support him. The Salafists do not want to enhance the power of their principal rival for the Islamist vote.
Realizing the odds against him, Mr. Morsi invited other leading candidates, Mr. Sabbahy, the Nasserist, and Dr. Abdoul Fotouh, the moderate Islamist, to meet with him Saturday in hopes of gaining their endorsement.
The best thing Brother Morsi has going for him is that his rival hails from the reviled Mubarak regime. That doesn't mean the anti-Mubarak crowd will vote for the Islamist candidate, but it may mean that they will decline to vote at all.
The more of them that do that, the better the odds become of Brother Morsi making it to the presidency.
As for Gen. Shafik, he's going to have to light a fire under the non-voting majority and get many of them to the polls next month. Their silence suggests they're not disposed to the Muslim Brotherhood – otherwise they would have voted this week.