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Egyptian voters caught between extremes they don’t really want

A man hangs posters of presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq at his shop in Cairo, June 13, 2012. The Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi will face Shafiq, the last prime minister of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, in a presidential run-off on June 16 and 17, the climax of Egypt's first free leadership contest after 16 months of military rule.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters

If this is what democracy is like, maybe we're better off without it, many Egyptians voting in their first-ever truly free presidential election must be thinking.

With a choice between a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and a former air-force commander and prime minister for Hosni Mubarak on the other, not only do these virgin voters have to choose between two political extremes, but the majority of Egyptians don't want either of them to win.

More than half of Egyptian voters opted for more moderate choices in the first round of voting last month, but because they divided their votes among several candidates, none of their choices made it to the final ballot.

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Out of frustration, many of these people say they will boycott the election this weekend; many others say they will spoil their ballot as a means of protest.

A lot of such people are hoping against hope that Ahmed Shafiq, Mr. Mubarak's last prime minister, will be disqualified from running when Egypt's High Constitutional Court makes a ruling Thursday. It's a long shot, but the court has been asked to rule on the constitutionality of a law passed by the new parliament that forbids any prominent member of the Mubarak regime from running for office.

(An earlier ruling by the country's electoral council determined the law was not likely to be constitutional, and permitted Major General (retired) Shafiq to run.)

If the court upholds the validity of the law, Gen. Shafiq will not be eligible as a candidate this weekend – a weird possibility in this truly weird election

In advance of the court ruling, the military-led government issued a decree on Wednesday re-imposing martial law, apparently as a precaution in case the court ruling should delay the election scheduled for this weekend and the promised transition to civilian authority.

To add to the confusion, the parties in parliament can't agree on the makeup of an assembly to write a new constitution that will define the powers of the presidency, so people don't even know what kind of president they're electing.

Assuming, however, that both candidates will remain eligible and the election will proceed as planned, the race is coming down to a question of fear.

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"It's about which evil do you fear more," said Hisham Kassem, a prominent publisher and democracy advocate, "an Islamic state or a return to a Mubarak-style dictatorship?"

While the choice isn't quite as stark as the negative campaigning makes it out to be, that's certainly how many voters view the candidacies of the two finalists: Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, who garnered almost 25 per cent of the vote in the first round of balloting last month, and Gen. Shafiq, who got 24 per cent of the votes.

"The choice is between a civil state and a religious state," Shafiq organizers told an enthusiastic Cairo crowd Wednesday evening in the last official campaign event before two days of voting begin Saturday.

Earlier in the day, rallies for Mr. Morsi in the Nasser City district of the capital delivered a similar kind of message: The choice is between carrying on with our democratic revolution or returning to the darkness of dictatorship, they said.

What's a voter to do?

Mr. Morsi knows he can count on the 25-per-cent hard-core support he received in the first round, plus votes from some of 17 per cent who voted for the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has said he will support Mr. Morsi and encourages his followers to do likewise.

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For his part, Gen. Shafiq has a base of 24 per cent and is counting on the support of most who voted for Amr Moussa, another former Mubarak cabinet minister, who captured 11 per cent of the vote.

Both candidates are eyeing the 21 per cent of the electorate that voted for the third-place finisher Hamdein Sabbahy, a follower of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Mr. Sabbahy is known to despise the prospect of an Islamist administration and to hate the idea of a return to dictatorship. He has urged his followers to boycott or spoil their ballots.

Both final candidates are trying to convince those people they have nothing to fear by voting for them.

Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie made a special appeal this week to the country's numerous Coptic Christians who fear very much the possibility of an Islamic state in Egypt. And Mr. Morsi tried to reassure Egyptian women they have nothing to fear from an Islamist president.

On Wednesday evening in a dramatic show of support for Gen. Shafiq by Egypt's old guard, Mona Abdel Nasser, daughter of the late president Nasser, and Jehan Sadat, widow of the assassinated Anwar Sadat, appeared on stage before 1,000 people at an invitation-only event held by, of all things, the Canada-Egypt Business Council.

Ms. Sadat, still stylish in appearance at 78, told the audience she was well aware that people fear Gen. Shafiq will return Egypt to a dictatorial regime. She wanted to assure the people they have nothing to fear.

"We have learned our lesson," Ms. Sadat said, speaking for the old guard that ruled Egypt from 1952 to 2011.

"We salute the revolutionaries, and we now stand united with them."

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