The candidate of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood won a spot in a runoff election, according to partial results on Friday from Egypt’s first genuinely competitive presidential vote. A veteran of the regime of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak and a leftist were in a tight race for second place and the chance to run against him.
The runoff will be held on June 16-17, pitting the two top contenders from the first round of voting held Wednesday and Thursday. The victor is to be announced June 21.
Vote counting was still not complete from the country’s biggest metropolis, the capital Cairo and its sister city Giza, which would likely decide the second—place finisher. The Brotherhood predicted its candidate Mohammed Morsi would face former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, a veteran of Mubarak’s rule, in the runoff.
That would pit the country’s two most divisive candidates against each other, and the race would be heated.
Mr. Morsi’s Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament, has promised to implement Islamic law in Egypt, alarming moderate Muslims, secular Egyptians and the Christian minority who fear restrictions on many rights. Though Morsi’s lead was solid, he garnered less than half the vote that the Brotherhood raked in during parliament elections late last year, a sign of public disenchantment with the group.
Mr. Shafiq’s strong showing would have been unimaginable a year ago amid the public’s anti—regime fervor. Shafiq was Mubarak’s last prime minister and was himself forced out of office by protests several weeks after his former boss was ousted. A former air force commander and personal friend of Mubarak, he campaigned overtly as an “anti—revolution” candidate in the presidential election, criticizing the anti-Mubarak protesters.
But his rise underlines the frustration with the revolution felt by a broad swath of Egyptians. The 15 months since Mubarak fell and the military took his place have seen continuous chaos, with a shipwrecked economy, a breakdown in public services, increasing crime and persistent protests that turned into bloody riots. That has left many craving stability.
By midafternoon Friday, counting had been completed in at least 24 of the country’s 27 provinces, representing more than half the votes cast. The election commission said turnout in the election’s first round was about 50 percent of more than 50 million eligible voters.
Mr. Morsi was in the lead with 26 percent of the ballots so far, according to the independent newspaper Al—Masry Al—Youm, which was compiling official reports from counting stations. That is likely enough to secure him a spot in the runoff.
But the race for second place was neck—and—neck between Shafiq with 23 percent and leftist Hamdeen Sabahi with 20 percent.
Cairo and Giza, where around 20 percent of the votes nationwide were cast, were likely to be decisive in determining the second—place finisher. The vote counting there was expected to be finished late Friday or early Saturday.
Sabahi was a darkhorse during months of campaigning but had a surprising surge in the days before voting began as Egyptians looked for an alternative to both Islamists and the former regime figures known as “feloul” or “remnants.”
Sabahi is a leftist who claims the mantle of the nationalist, socialist ideology of Gamal Abdel—Nasser, Egypt’s president from 1956 to 1970.
“The results reflect that people are searching for a third alternative, those who fear a religious state and those who don’t want Mubarak’s regime to come back,” said Sabahi campaign spokesman Hossam Mounis.
In a particularly surprising result, Sabahi was the winner by far in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, where he came in first and Morsi and Shafiq lagged far behind.
Alexandria is the traditional stronghold of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis. But the powerful Salafi vote there was split between Islamist candidates.
The result is “a great loss to the Brotherhood who lost their credibility in the street,” Mounis said.
The biggest fall in the race which had a field of 13 candidates, most of them minor was former foreign minister Amr Moussa, who for months led in opinion polls. He had a similar pro—stability appeal as Shafiq and a softer image. But it appeared Shafiq and Sabahi siphoned off much of his vote and the results so far showed him last among the five most prominent candidates.
A middle—ground figure, moderate Islamist Abdel—Moneim Abolfotoh, also performed below expectations, ranking fourth.
The Brotherhood is hoping for a presidential victory to seal its political domination of Egypt, which would be a dramatic turnaround from the decades it was repressed under Mubarak. It already holds nearly half of parliament after victories in elections late last year.
“I think we are on the verge of a new era. We trusted God, we trusted in the people, we trusted in our party,” prominent Brotherhood figure Essam el—Erian said at a news conference late Thursday night, just hours after polls closed, when the group first claimed a Morsi victory.
The group has promised a “renaissance” of Egypt, not only reforming Mubarak—era corruption and reviving decrepit infrastructure, but also bringing a greater degree of rule by Islamic law.
But the Brotherhood faced a backlash from many of the voters who supported it in the parliament election but later grew disillusioned. Some accused it of trying to overly monopolize power like Mubarak’s ruling party once did.
Morsi’s showing in the partial results was a considerable drop from the around 50 percent support the Brotherhood received in the parliament vote.
“Egyptians are punishing the Muslim Brotherhood, even if their candidate won,” said Tharwat el—Kherbawi, an ex—Brotherhood member and an analyst in Islamic movements.
Still, Morsi benefited from the might of the Brotherhood’s well—organized electoral machine, the nation’s strongest.
A Morsi verus Shafiq runoff would likely be a particularly heated race.
Each has repeatedly spoken of the danger if the other becomes president. Morsi has said there would be massive street protests if a “feloul” wins, arguing it could only be the result of rigging. Many Egyptians believe the former general Shafiq has the support of the ruling military, though it denies backing any of the candidates.
Shafiq, on his part, has said it would be “unacceptable” if an Islamist takes the presidential office, echoing the rhetoric of Mubarak, his longtime mentor who devoted much of his 29—year rule to fighting Islamists.