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A national flag waves as Egyptians line up outside a polling station to cast their votes during the first day of the presidential elections in Alexandria, Egypt, Wednesday, May 23, 2012. (Khalil Hamra/Khalil Hamra/AP)
A national flag waves as Egyptians line up outside a polling station to cast their votes during the first day of the presidential elections in Alexandria, Egypt, Wednesday, May 23, 2012. (Khalil Hamra/Khalil Hamra/AP)

Will Egypt finish the Islamist arc - or be the first to buck the trend? Add to ...

Parishioners at the Church of St. Mark and Pope Peter in Egypt’s second-largest city are giving thanks that Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak-era prime minister and the leading choice of Christians, did so well this week in the opening round of the country’s historic presidential election.

They are also asking for divine assistance to make him victorious in the final showdown against Mohamed Morsi, an Islamic conservative.

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“We want anyone but the Islamists to win,” Georges Adel says as he shows a visitor around the massive white marble Coptic Orthodox church.

In the centre, he points out a shrine to the 23 parishioners killed last year when a car bomb exploded in the entranceway. There are large blood-stained shards from the church’s façade, along with a shredded red dress and pictures of victims on the wall beneath a fresco of the open arms of Jesus.

The blast took place just three weeks before the popular uprising that triggered the fall of long-time president Hosni Mubarak, and was believed to have been the work of extremist Salafists – a puritanical sect that follows the ways of the earliest Muslims and disdains other religions.

Fear of such violence is why Christians across the country, as well as most secular Muslims, are relieved that it is no longer a forgone conclusion that Egypt’s first freely elected president will be an Islamist. When 70 per cent of voters in the recent parliamentary election sent Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Nour Party candidates to the People’s Assembly, there seemed little reason doubt there would be such an outcome.

However, someone’s prayers were answered – and now, instead, the country is starkly divided over which world view will triumph when the runoff vote on June 16 and 17 decides the ultimate victor.

The results have global implications because Egypt is not just any Arab state; it sets the political and cultural standard for all the others. Saudi Arabia has the oil, but the land of the Nile has the population – approaching 83 million – and the history. Much as its peace treaty with Israel, once scorned, has paved the way for others, the Arab Spring didn’t bloom until the popular uprising reached Tahrir Square.

Now, as Arab countries from Tunisia to Syria turn out old authoritarian regimes and embrace an Islamist trend, Egypt stands in the middle with a foot in each camp. Will it complete the Islamist arc – or be the first to buck the trend?

Voters are being asked to choose between two very different options: On one hand, there is Mr. Morsi, a dour official of the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other, Mr. Shafik is a retired general, former head of the air force and Mr. Mubarak’s pick to be prime minister at the time of last year’s popular uprising.

Mr. Morsi espouses a speedy adoption of Islamic sharia law and a review of Egypt’s 30-year treaty with neighbouring Israel, while Mr. Shafik – unapologetic about his role in the old regime – vows both to uphold the treaty and to halt the Islamists in their tracks.

It is hardly the choice for president the country’s revolutionaries had in mind when Mr. Mubarak was ousted from power 15 months ago.

It is also a shock for the Islamists who saw the vote for all of them amount to less than 50 per cent, a major drop from the 70 per cent garnered by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and the Nour party in the parliamentary elections.

Many who voted for the Brotherhood before said this week that they did not want the group to control the presidency as well. Impatient for economic progress, some criticized the amount of time spent by the assembly on issues such as the role of women, divorce and genital mutilation, and blamed the Brotherhood for setting such an agenda.

‘Is there anything better than Islam?’

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