Egypt's 51 million voters have made history by voting in their country's first-ever free and open presidential election. They have also proved almost all commentators wrong in the choices they made. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, standing on the ticket of the Freedom and Justice Party, has 25.3 per cent of the first-round vote to 24.9 for Ahmed Shafik, standing as an independent candidate. Final figures will not be known before May 29, and the runoff will be held on June 16 and 17. None of the 12 candidates emerged as a clear pre-election leader, but the surprises include the left-Nasserist independent Hamdeen Sabbahi, who took approximately 20 per cent on a strong social-justice platform. The candidates with higher campaign profiles, such as Amr Moussa, former secretary general of the Arab League, or the ex-Brotherhood independent Islamist, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, made little impression in the poll itself. It is highly significant that neither of the two front-runners has been harmed by their antecedents. The Brotherhood chose the uncharismatic Morsi only when the Higher Presidential Electoral Commission disqualified its first choice, Khairat al-Shater, for an unresolved criminal conviction. For his part, Mr. Shafik, a former fighter pilot and long-term civil aviation minister in the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, was also Prime Minister for a month before Mr. Mubarak was ousted by the Tahrir Square revolution.

Mr. Morsi has benefited from the Brotherhood's huge party machine and its supporters' deep social conservatism, and Mr. Shafik from political conservatism among those who staff major institutions like the military, the civil service, the judiciary, and the police. They could well see him as Egypt's best defence against the Islamism, however moderate it is said to be, of the Brotherhood, and against the uncertainties embodied by the urban and tech-savvy younger generation whose courage precipitated the end of the dictatorship 15 months ago. The liberal or left-liberal vote may have been split between Mr. Sabbahi and Mr. Moussa, and the younger democrats are the biggest losers in this election, because the greatest impact of the conservatives' first-round win will probably be shown in the new constitution, which is yet to be written and will either reflect the dominance of Islamist MPs in the already-elected parliament or reveal tensions between them and Mr. Shafik. Irrespective of the eventual outcome, however, the whole election remains a triumph for the hundreds of thousands of young people who started the Egyptian revolution in February 2011. Democracy is not a one-shot game and their continued engagement and vigilance are essential for its success.

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