Preliminary results from Egypt's presidential election show Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq have won the top two spots and advanced to next month's runoff.
Results compiled Friday from all of Egypt's 27 provinces show the two in a very tight race, with Morsi in the lead with 25 per cent of the votes.
The results have Shafiq, who served as ousted President Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, close behind with 24 per cent.
That sets the stage for a deeply divisive runoff vote June 16-17 for Egypt's presidency.
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 less than 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 fervour. 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 anti-Mubarak protesters. He still inspires venom from 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 run-off, the Brotherhood will likely try to drum up anti-Mubarak fervour 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.
A top Brotherhood lawmaker, Mohammed el-Beltagy, said Shafiq's showing was a "shock."
It "reflected the ability of the old regime to reproduce itself" through its old tools, he said. "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.
Brotherhood's popularity waning
Political analyst Bashir Abdel-Fatah, however, contended that "Egyptians don't want an Islamist president ... they will vote for anyone but an Islamist."
The first rounds 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.
But the race for second place was neck-and-neck between Shafiq with 23 per cent and leftist Hamdeen Sabahi with 20 per cent.
Cairo and Giza, where around 20 per cent 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.