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Egyptian Presidential Poll A Face-Off Of Two Extremes

Banners of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi (front) and his rival, former leader Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, decorate a street in Cairo.
The Egyptian presidential poll on June 16-17 is a confrontation between two antagonistic forces.

One is the Mubarak-era establishment, rooted in the military and personified by Ahmed Shafiq. He is a former air force commander who was appointed prime minister during former President Hosni Mubarak's last days in office.

The other is the Muslim Brotherhood, personified by Muhammad Morsi. He is the conservative Islamist head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), founded by the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2011 Egyptian revolution that toppled Mubarak.

Shafiq and Morsi are facing off after a neck-and-neck first-round vote last month that sidelined moderates in the middle.

The two sides have been enemies for decades, with the Egyptian establishment banning the Brotherhood from participating directly in politics and often imprisoning its leaders. But today the Brotherhood is Egypt's largest political organization with a proven ability to bring out voters.

Shafiq claims to be the bridge across Egypt's gaping political divide. Speaking earlier this month at a campaign event, he sought to portray himself as the reconciliation candidate.

"As I said, I'm stretching my hand out to all Egyptians, I accept all dialogue with all politicians from all forces," Shafiq said.

"At the same time, I'm insisting on rallying to the people's side and I'm inviting you all to make deals with people."

Confrontational Court

The Islamists see him differently. After they swept the parliamentary elections, they tried to bar Shafiq from the presidential poll as a former senior member of the Mubarak regime.

Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq says he is the compromise candidate.
Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq says he is the compromise candidate.
But on June 14, Egypt's Supreme Court, composed of Mubarak-appointed judges, not only cleared Shafiq to run but dissolved the newly elected parliament itself.

The dissolution of the legislature was over claims that independents did not have equal opportunities to contest all seats against political parties. But coming just ahead of the presidential vote, the move seemed to signal how much the Mubarak-era establishment backs Shafiq.

Voice of America's bureau chief in Cairo, Elizabeth Arrott, says that's made a lot of Egyptians angry.

"What is particularly galling to a lot of people is that the head of the court, Farouk Sultan, is also the head of the presidential committee and election commission and that is seen by many people as a conflict of interest," she says. "He had been speaking out, indicating what the court was going to do in terms of supporting particularly Shafiq."

The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Morsi, has accepted the parliament's dissolution but vowed a tough fight and issued his own warning.

"We will continue with our journey and observe closely [the election runoff], and if there is any fraud we already know what the consequences will be -- a revolution against the criminals, a revolution against those who protect the criminals," Morsi said. "A revolution until the goals of the January 25 [2011] revolution are fully achieved."

Democratic Or Demagogic?

Morsi is running on a platform of change. An engineer with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, and a member of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood before it chose him to head the FJP, he is a technocrat committed to Islamic values.

The FJP backs a free-market economy but vows to fight against corruption and give support to the poor. The party also says legislation must comply with Shari'a law, but has pledged not to impose a strict religious code along the Saudi or Iranian model. It has also said it will not abrogate Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Less clear is its stance on women and minorities, as it says only that its membership is open to all Egyptians who accept the terms of its program.

Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Muhammad Morsi has not backed down.
Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Muhammad Morsi has not backed down.
Jane Kinninmont of London-based Chatham House says the fact neither the FJP nor its founder, the Muslim Brotherhood, have any track record in office makes even Egyptians uncertain what to expect from them.

"Egyptians are quite split over how they see them. Some of them see the Muslim Brotherhood as genuinely democratic, as being noncorrupt, offering a very promising future of change," Kinninmont says, "whereas there are certainly secularists and some of Egypt's Christians who fear now that their choice is between a military dictatorship or a theocratic dictatorship."

No End In Sight

As Shafiq and Morsi face off at the polls, a big question is how much power Egypt's first elected president since the Arab Spring would actually wield.

Writing the country's new constitution -- the main task of the dissolved parliament -- has yet to be done. Now, with the parliament gone, the military transition government is likely to step in to form a constituent assembly to draft the document, rather than wait for the formation of a new legislature.

If that happens, it would give Egypt's military a major role in defining the powers of the future president, something the Islamists are unlikely to accept.

That suggests the power struggle in Egypt may be far from resolved long after this weekend's ballots are counted.