The two surviving candidates in Egypt's presidential election appealed Saturday for support from voters who rejected them as polarizing extremists in the first round even as they faced a new challenge from the third runner-up who contested the preliminary results.
Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, vowed he won't revive the old authoritarian regime as he sought to cast off his image as an anti-revolution figure, while the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, reached out to those fearful of hardline Islamic rule and the rise of a religious state.
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Many votes are up for grabs, but the two candidates will have a tough battle wooing the middle ground voters amid calls from activists for a boycott of the divisive vote.
Adding to the uncertainty, Hamdeen Sabahi called for a partial vote recount, citing violations that he claimed could change the outcome, a prospect that may further enflame an already explosive race. Sabahi, a socialist and a champion of the poor, came in third by a margin of some 700,000 votes, leaving him out of the next round to be held on June 16-17.
Many Egyptians were dismayed by the early results, which opened a contest that looked like a throwback to Mubarak's era — a rivalry between a military-rooted strongman promising a firm hand to ensure stability and Islamists who were repressed under the old regime but have become the most powerful political force in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Each candidate has die-hard supporters but is also loathed by significant sectors of the population.
The first round race was tight. Preliminary counts Friday from stations around the country reported by the state news agency gave Morsi 25.3% and Shafiq 24.9% with a less than 100,000-vote difference. The election commission said about 50% of more than 50 million eligible voters turned out for the first round, which had 13 contenders.
A large chunk of the vote — more than 40% — went to candidates who were seen as more in the spirit of the uprising that toppled Mubarak, that is neither from the Brotherhood nor from the so-called "feloul," or "remnants" of the old autocratic regime.
'Garbage bin of history.' Morsi (Photo: AFP)
Sabahi came in third with a surprisingly strong showing of 21.5%, followed by Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who broke with the Brotherhood.
A spokesman for Egypt's liberal Free Egyptians Party, Ahmed Khairy, called the likely runoff vote between Morsi and Shafiq "the worst-case scenario."
Khairy described Morsi as an "Islamic fascist" and Shafiq as a "military fascist."
As for which candidate the party would throw its weight behind in the runoff vote, Khairy said this had not been decided yet.
"It will be very hard to endorse either of the candidates that made it to the runoff," he said. "The Free Egyptians Party, therefore, will either boycott the vote or leave the decision up to individual members, as had been the case in the first round of voting."
Steven Cook, an Egypt expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, said the outcome of the battles between the two extremes is hard to predict.
"Egypt is following the classic pattern of revolutions. People who made them get frozen out," he said.
He said Shafiq will rely on the same "dynamics" of fanning fears of the Islamists that Mubarak relied on in the past. On the other hand, the Brotherhood will play on the fear of Shafiq's recreating the old regime.
Shafiq with former President Mubarak (Archive photo: Reuters)
In an effort to broaden his support, Morsi met with public figures and political groups Saturday, and tried to present himself as the candidate for all Egyptians. But in a sign of the tough task ahead for the Brotherhood, three of the presidential candidates, including Sabahi, didn't turn up.
The Brotherhood won close to 50% of the seats in parliament in the country's first parliamentary elections in the post-Mubarak era. But the fundamentalist group's credibility has taken a hard hit since because of the legislature's performance and the Brotherhood's reneging on a string of public pledges — including not to run a presidential candidate.
Speaking after the meeting, Morsi said that his group respects democratic principles, and stressed that his candidacy is the sole bulwark against attempts to recreate Mubarak's regime, through Shafiq's return.
"We are certain that the remnants of Mubarak's regime and his gang, and those that belong to it, and trying to bring back the former regime will fall flat and will land in the garbage bin of history," he said.
He added if he is elected president he will seek to form a broad-based coalition government. A leading Brotherhood member, Mohammed el-Beltagy, said the meeting Saturday discussed proposals to appoint Sabahi and Abolfotoh as vice presidents.
Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak, spent much of his campaign for the first round criticizing the revolution that ousted his former boss. But on Saturday, he vowed there would be no "recreation of the old regime."
"I am fed up with being labeled 'old regime,'" Shafiq said at a news conference in his campaign headquarters in Cairo. "All Egyptians are part of the old regime."
A former air force commander and a personal friend of Mubarak's, Shafiq was booted out of office by a wave of street protests shortly after Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011.
The 15 months since Mubarak's ouster have seen a surge in crime, a faltering economy and seemingly endless street protests, work stoppages and sit-ins. The disorder has fed disenchantment with the revolutionary groups, and played to Shafiq's advantage as he portrayed himself as the candidate best placed to provide security.
But Shafiq is also associated with Egypt's military leadership, which has been accused of mismanaging the transitional period and failing to reform corrupt institutions or to provide stability. They also have been widely blamed for the deaths of more than 100 protesters, the torture of detainees and holding military tribunals for at least 12,000 civilians.
"Egypt has changed and there will be no turning back the clock," said Shafiq, 70. "We have had a glorious revolution. I pay tribute to this glorious revolution and pledge to be faithful to its call for justice and freedom."
Shafiq also tried to enlist the support of youth groups, singling out the large associations of soccer fans known as "ultras" and April 6, both of which played a key role in the uprising.
"Your revolution has been hijacked," he said twice, "I pledge to bring its fruits between your hands."
His outreach was swiftly rejected by the revolutionary group April 6.
Shafiq also held out the possibility of naming Sabahi as a deputy if elected president — an apparent bid to draw supporters of the third-place finisher to his side.
Sabahi later said he was not ready to accept the results that have been released by regional commissions. The Central Election Commission planned to release official results in the coming days. Those cannot be contested.
"We are waiting for official results. We will manage to contest in the runoff and succeed in fulfilling what we started," Sabahi told a crowd of about 3,000 people outside his headquarters in Giza. Some broke out in tears.
Sabahi's campaign manager, Hossam Mounis, said they had received video clips filmed by supporters showing violations, and complaints had been filed across the country to judges overseeing polling centers.
Hafez Abou Saada, a veteran rights activist and an election observer, said violations such as vote buying and busing in voters were limited but there were more significant problems in the process of tallying votes at regional counting centers. He said the violations were not sufficient to force a new vote but could be cause for a recount.
"The differences are very tight and the aggregation of votes can be difficult," he said.
Observers were largely not allowed to attend that process, but candidate deputies were present.
Former US President Jimmy Carter also said Saturday that his center was restricted in its monitoring mission, but the process was generally acceptable and violations won't affect the runoffs.
"I don't think the mistakes and errors and improprieties that we have witnessed in the last few days will have a negative impact on the runoff," he told reporters.