Middle East

Egypt reaches its elections climax

Posters for Mohammad Mursi (foreground) and Ahmed Shafik, Cairo
Image caption The winning candidate will be the one who best taps the revolutionary vote

After all the passion we have seen in Cairo's Tahrir Square over the past 18 months it is curious that one of the two candidates in Egypt's presidential elections - scheduled for 16 and 17 June - was Hosni Mubarak's prime minister during some of the darkest days of the 2011 revolution.

Even more curiously, candidate Ahmed Shafik openly admits to admiring ex-President Mubarak - now serving a life sentence - making his claims that he will break with the policies of the past sound rather unconvincing.

Given 30 years of Mr Mubarak, one would have been forgiven for assuming that, come the first free and fair elections, any other candidate but his last prime minister would be a shoo-in.

But that would be to ignore the entrenched power of Egypt's Deep State, members of the former regime, allied with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) and its appointed officials.

It would also be to overlook the pining among many ordinary Egyptians for a "strong man", because they miss the stability and safety of the pre-revolution era or because they feel they have no choice but to back Mr Shafik if they want to beat the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammad Mursi and keep Egypt a secular state.

Renaissance project

As we saw in the last round of elections, such feelings are clearly widespread.

But Egyptians who support Mr Shafik do not usually drape themselves in his image the way the followers of Mr Mursi do.

People who tell me they will vote for him do not seem proud of it, usually adding quickly afterwards that they are doing it simply as a duty, because he is the least-worst option.

Image caption Mr Mursi has been doing his best to woo the revolutionaries

Voting for Mohammad Mursi would certainly usher in some new thinking in Egypt after 30 years of stagnation.

While Mr Shafik has been vague about the policies he would implement, Mr Mursi has published detailed plans for the Muslim Brotherhood's ambitious state-building scheme, the much trumpeted al-Nahda (Renaissance) project.

Al-Nahda is a comprehensive programme for social and economic reform based on success stories from around the world, with Turkey as its partner and pilot light.

But many Egyptians distrust the Brotherhood, not merely the Copts who feel afloat in a sea of angry Muslims, but also Muslims who point to the Brotherhood's violent past, its view of women, and its creepy oath of loyalty to the Supreme Guide.

They suspect the Brotherhood of being a wolf in sheep's clothing, a totalitarian organisation run on Leninist lines that serves the party first and others later, if at all.

And they worry that the Brotherhood will pursue foreign policy adventures making enemies of the West.

Judged on what the Brotherhood has done there is little basis for such fears, but it still needs to convince voters to be sure of clinching the presidency.

In particular it needs to target the revolutionary vote, the liberals and leftists who have no horse left in the race.

In the first round of voting, Mr Shafik and Mr Mursi each took around 25%, while Hamdin Sabbahi and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh - candidates with high profiles in the revolution - took about 40% between them.

The winning candidate will be the one who taps this revolutionary vote.

Given Mr Shafik's Mubarak-era record, revolutionaries who can bring themselves to vote at all for either of the two remaining candidates are much more likely to support Mr Mursi.

He has been busy doing his best to woo them, with him serving as both the revolutionary and the Islamist candidate.

No revolutionary candidates are likely to team up with Mr Shafik. For the revolutionaries Mr Shafik, together with head of Scaf, Gen Tantawi, are the new snakes' heads that need to be decapitated before the revolution in Egypt can progress.

Given the electoral system Egypt chose, it was inevitable that in the final round all three groups in Egyptian politics - the Deep State, Islamists and revolutionaries - would not be represented.

The big surprise was that the non-Islamist candidate in the final two came from the Deep State and not the revolutionary camp.

The revolutionary vote was split between several candidates, while the Islamist and Deep State vote was concentrated behind the two winners.

If Mr Mubarak's spy chief Omar Suleiman, or Salafi cleric Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail, had stayed in the race, Mr Mursi and Mr Shafik's votes would have been split and a revolutionary candidate - probably Hamdin Sabbahi - would have gone through to the final round instead.

Lack of trust

Many Egyptians in Tahrir Square see the practised hand of the Deep State on the electoral process.

Three of the knocked-out presidential candidates have alleged that as many as 900,000 members of the Egyptian security forces - prohibited from voting in Egypt - voted for Mr Shafik.

Image caption If Mr Shafik wins, then a mass return to Tahrir Square looks inevitable

What happens next is unpredictable. There is a profound lack of trust between the Deep State, the revolutionaries and the Islamists and each can effectively veto the other's moves.

The army has soldiers that can arrest Islamists and revolutionaries and try them in military courts.

The revolutionaries can paralyse the country by filling up Tahrir Square and staging mass strikes. They also have the moral high ground.

The Muslim Brotherhood can also stage strikes and protests. It has the religious high ground and the best organised grassroots base. It also won parliamentary elections convincingly.

None of these positions amount to a winning hand. But it means no group can be marginalised or ignored.

Whoever comes to power, their first priority is likely to be to try to defang their opponents. Mohammad Mursi has said his first priority is to clean up the interior ministry.

Image caption Strong feelings remain in Egypt that there should be justice for the revolution

Ahmed Shafik could try to ban the Muslim Brotherhood again.

Egypt is walking along the edge of a precipice. If the elections pass off peacefully and Mr Mursi wins - surely the most likely outcome if the elections are free and fair - then most Egyptians will accept that.

If Mr Shafik wins, then a mass return to Tahrir Square looks inevitable.

Only if there is a dramatic deterioration in the security situation could Mr Shafik's tough-talking security patter have a chance at winning over undecided voters.

But those are not the worst-case scenarios.

If the Scaf gets cold feet that Mr Shafik is going to be trounced by the Muslim Brotherhood, then elections might not take place at all.

The Brotherhood's great fear is that the Scaf will try to subvert the democratic process to prevent its rightful ascension to power.

Such an attempt could lead to a disaster, as happened in Algeria circa 1991.

The Scaf's nightmare scenario is the revolution spreading to the military.

The Scaf is outwardly secular but many soldiers and officers are not, and some are even members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But even if there is more turbulence as the election reaches its climax, at least the country has a real choice this time.

Hugh Miles is a writer and journalist living in Cairo.