Egypt results point to deeply divisive runoff race

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, casts his vote inside a polling station, in Zakazik 80 Kilometers (50 miles) north of Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, May 23, 2012. On Wednesday morning, Egypt commenced two days of presidential voting after 16 months of interim rule by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. This election is the first free and fair race since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, casts his vote inside a polling station, in Zakazik 80 Kilometers (50 miles) north of Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, May 23, 2012. On Wednesday morning, Egypt commenced two days of presidential voting after 16 months of interim rule by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. This election is the first free and fair race since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

CAIRO (AP) — The candidate of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood won a spot in a runoff election, likely against a veteran of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's regime in what would be a deeply divisive battle to become the new president of Egypt, according to partial results Friday from the first round of voting.

The race for the second spot in the runoff was startlingly tight. Former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq appeared to be ahead. But a dark horse leftist candidate was close on his tail, and hundreds of thousands of still-uncounted votes from the capital Cairo and its sister city Giza gave him at least a theoretical chance to overtake Shafiq.

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.

Nearly complete results showed the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi rising into the second round with a plurality of the votes, around 26 percent.

Morsi and Shafiq are the country's most polarizing candidates, each loathed by significant sectors of the population. A head-to-head match between them is the most heated imaginable scenario — ironically, recreating the pattern of the past three decades, when the Brotherhood was the Mubarak regime's top opponent.

The 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. Morsi's first place win was based on the Brotherhood's ability to bring out its fiercely loyal base. But he garnered only half the vote that the Brotherhood raked in during parliament elections late last year, a sign of public disenchantment with the group.

Shafiq's strong showing, in turn, would have been inconceivable a year ago amid the public's anti-regime fervor. He 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 revolutionary protesters. He still inspires venom of many who believe he will preserve the Mubarak-style autocracy that the popular revolt sought to uproot. He has been met at public appearances by protesters throwing shoes.

But his rise underlines the frustration with the revolution felt by many Egyptians. The past 15 months 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.

In a runoff, the Brotherhood will likely try to drum up anti-Mubarak fervor among the public, while Shafiq will play on fears of an Islamist takeover. Each has repeatedly spoken of the danger if the other becomes president. Morsi has said there would be massive street protests if Shafiq wins, arguing it could only be the result of rigging — though there were no reports of major violations in the first round.

Already, the two campaigns tried to appeal to the millions who voted for the two main alternative candidates, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, whose supporters saw them as more "pro-revolution." Both Shafiq and Morsi aides tried to claim revolutionary credentials for their man.

"We know the Muslim Brotherhood stole the revolution from the youth," said Shafiq's spokesman, Ahmed Sarhan, who said the candidate aimed to restore the principles of a civil state. "Our program is about the future. The Muslim Brotherhood is about an Islamic empire. That is not what (the youth groups) called for" in the revolution.

A top Brotherhood lawmaker, Mohammed el-Beltagy, said Shafiq's showing was a "shock" that "reflected the ability of the old regime to reproduce itself."

"This represents a complete threat to the revolution and the nation. Shafiq represents the pre-Jan. 25 Revolution state," he added, referring to the date last year when the uprising against Mubarak began.

Political analyst Bashir Abdel-Fatah noted that the first round results showed the drop in the Brotherhood's popularity since the parliament voting because of their reversals of political positions, poor performance in parliament and moves that people saw as "hunger for power."

"Citizens felt that the Brothers are not really carriers of a message but they want to hijack power," he said.

By mid afternoon Friday, counting had been completed in at least 25 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.

Morsi was in the lead with 26 percent, according official reports compiled from counting stations by the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

But the race for second place was neck-and-neck between Shafiq with 23 percent and the leftist 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 dark horse 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." Campaigning on promises to help the poor, Sabahi claimed 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.

Not far behind him was Abolfotoh, with around 19 percent. A moderate Islamist, Abolfotoh had appealed to a broad spectrum, including Islamists disenchanted with the Brotherhood and liberals.

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.

Egypt's Christian minority, at least 10 percent of the population of 82 million, went strongly for Shafiq, who depicted himself as the man to prevent an Islamist takeover, according to Abdel-Fatah, who works for Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. In one village in southern Egypt, Aziziya, the entire voting population of 4,000 Christians cast ballots for Shafiq, according to a private TV station Al-Nahar.

Shafiq also rallied former members of Mubarak's party, who feel threatened by the rise of either the Islamists or the revolutionaries. Analysts said Shafiq has also gained support from the families of security men— as security personnel themselves are not allowed to vote.

If the runoff is between Shafiq and Morsi, a major question will be who will get the votes of those who backed the two "alternative candidates" Abolfotoh and Sabahi.

Mohamed Sayid, a young janitor at an Alexandria hotel, said he backed Sabahi because he promised to reform the widely hated police forces. If Sabahi doesn't make the runoff, he said he would turn to Morsi.

"He said he is a villager like us. He understands the people," said Sayid, who is engaged and struggling to make enough to buy an apartment, a prerequisite in Egypt for grooms ahead of a wedding.

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.

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.

"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.

___

AP correspondents Lee Keath and Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.
Associated Press
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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