Egypt chooses between army and Islam

EGYPTIANS have voted in the first free presidential election in their history that for many offers a choice of two evils – a military man who served deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak or an Islamist who says he is running for God.

Reeling from a court order two days ago to dissolve a new parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many question whether the wealthy generals who pushed aside their fellow officer Mubarak last year to appease the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring will honour a pledge to let civilians rule.

“Egypt chooses a president today without a constitution or a parliament,” the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper wrote in a front-page headline, highlighting the uncertainty many Egyptians feel 16 months after Mubarak’s 30-year rule ended with mass protests.

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With neither a parliament nor a new constitution in place to define the president’s powers, the run-off vote this weekend will not settle the matter, leaving 82 million Egyptians, foreign investors and allies in the United States and Europe unsure what kind of state the most populous Arab nation will be.

Some of Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters say they will spoil their ballots rather than back Ahmed Shafik, 70, a former air force commander who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, or Mohammed Morsy, 60, of the Brotherhood, the clandestine enemy of army rule for six decades.

Whoever wins, the army retains the upper hand. A Shafik presidency means a man steeped in military tradition will be back in charge, just like all the other previous presidents. If Morsy wins, the military can still influence how much executive authority he has in the yet-to-be-written constitution.

Many fear the Brotherhood will not accept a defeat quietly and a Shafik win could touch off new turmoil on the streets, forcing the army to take sides to impose order and further unsettling a state at the heart of a turbulent Middle East.

The euphoria that accompanied Mubarak’s overthrow on 11 February last year has given way to exhaustion and frustration after a messy and often violent transition overseen by the generals.

For those who preferred the secular centrists, leftists and moderate Islamists who lost in the first round, the two-man run-off leaves an unpalatable choice from the extremes.

“Both are useless but we must choose one of them unfortunately,” said Hassan el-Shafie, 33, in Mansoura, north of Cairo. “But I am thinking of spoiling my vote.”

Yet, Shafik has won over many who see him having the army’s backing to bring stability to a nation, whose economy has been teetering on the brink of crisis with its foreign reserves drained dramatically after tourists and investors packed up. “He has exactly what we need in a leader. A strong military man to have a strong grip on the state and bring back security,” said Hamdy Saif, 22, a student in Cairo’s Nasser City district.

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There are signs of exasperation with the Brotherhood’s push for power on the back of a revolt driven in its early stages by the secular, urban middle class that may limit Morsy’s ability to widen his appeal beyond the Brotherhood’s disciplined ranks.

The Brotherhood had secured the biggest bloc in parliament elected in a vote that ended in January. It ran for more seats than it initially said it would and then angered some Egyptians by reneging on a declaration not to seek the presidency. The court ruling to dissolve parliament reverses its gains, and helped win at least some more sympathisers for the group.

More than 850 people were killed in the uprising that brought Mubarak down.

The former president has been sentenced to life in jail, as was his interior minister, but many were angry with the 2 June verdict because six top police officers were acquitted, so many now feel Mubarak could win an appeal.

Both Shafik and Morsy have sought the centre ground, promising to rule in the spirit of the revolution: “It is not correct that the military council wants to rule through me,” said Shafik, seen as a potential successor even in Mubarak’s time, although he and other contenders were overshadowed by the president’s son.

Morsy, a last-minute choice for the Brotherhood after its preferred candidate was barred, has played down talk of a crackdown on beachwear and alcohol that would hurt tourism and steered away from confrontation with Israel after three decades of cool peace maintained during Mubarak’s military-backed rule.

“We are back to the political dynamic of secular versus Islamist, of a civil state versus an Islamist state,” said Mona Makram Ebeid, a political scientist and member of a body that advises SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

“That is what we as political forces are confronted with today, causing almost a gridlock,” she said, referring to months of wrangling between the army, Islamists, liberals and other parties seeking to carve a new course for the nation.

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During Mubarak’s era, his presidency was mainly endorsed in single-candidate referendums but in 2005, under pressure from his US ally, he held a multi-candidate presidential race. No one was surprised when Mubarak cruised to an easy win because of rules that had made it impossible to put up a realistic challenge.