As the polls close on the second day of voting in Egypt’s first meaningful presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamad Morsy — who was polling in the low single digits just a few weeks ago — has emerged as the frontrunner.
His victory demonstrates the combined effectiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grassroots organisational muscle, healthy funding base and the popular appeal of their moderate Islamic branding.
With official results not released until next week and the other major candidates too closely packed to call, it is as yet unclear who will compete with Morsy in the one-on-one second round, to take place in June.
One surprise performer was the secular left-leaning Hamdeen Sabahi, who had been relegated by most commentators (including this author) to outsider status. Sabahi, Jay Leno look-alike and founder of the Karama (Dignity) party, ran a populist campaign that contained more than an echo of former President Abdel Nasser’s Arab Nationalism.
The unexpected strength of his campaign is testament to the continuing popularity of Arab Nationalism in Egypt. Both Sabahi and Mosry’s success also underline the advantages enjoyed by of those who entered the post-Mubarak era with existing institutions and networks of mobilisation.
Also in the running for second place is Amr Moussa. Moussa was at one stage foreign minister under Mubarak before becoming head of the Arab league (some suspect in an attempt to "kick him upstairs" and keep him out of the regime’s hair).
He came into the contest with unassailable name recognition, with his history allowing him to play the experience card without being too closely associated with Mubarak. He was considered the man to beat right up until the vote.
Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, another possible contender for the second round, is considered by many to have the best chance of beating Morsy. A moderate who split from the Brotherhood, Fotouh combines an unusal mix of leftist, liberal and Islamist policy. He took on Amr Moussa in the sole presidential debate, a five-hour marathon, after which his support began to tank. The debate itself is credited with puncturing Fotouh’s everything-to-everyone appeal. He was forced him to lay out his policies in more detail, which helped drive a desertion of Islamist supporters to Morsi and secular support to Sabahi.
Some commentators are predicting a three-way split in the revolutionary vote, which would in effect hand both places in the second round to the two major candidates from the former regime — even if between them they did not have a majority.
Indeed Shafiq — who is all but officially the candidate of the counter-revolution (the Mubaraks all apparently voted for him) — is now a contender and the candidate Morsi would possibly most like to run against. Animosity toward Shafiq saw his posters splashed with red paint representing the blood of the martyrs, and scrawled with graffiti, usually the word "felool" which means crumbs or remnants, referring to the fact that he is a left-over from the old regime.
If the second-round contest is between the Brotherhood and the old regime, many of the revolutionary youth who filled Tahrir square will be vindicated in their push for a boycott of the elections. However procedurally fair the elections might be, SCAF’s oversight, and the fact that protesters are still regularly killed in the streets, means that the context in which they are taking place in is far from free. Their real battle is still taking place outside of formal politics.
Tens of Millions of Egyptians, however, are eager for a speedy transition, and have seized this opportunity to vote in relatively clean elections where the results mattered and were not known in advance.
Whatever the results, such a vote marks a huge triumph for the people of Egypt and the region.
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