World·In Depth

Egypt's next president: a stark choice between two extremes

If Egyptians were hoping for a unifying figure to emerge from their first truly democratic elections since the 1950s, they may not find it this time around.
The two candidates in the runoff vote for the Egyptian presidency represent a choice between a secular or Islam-based civil society. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (L) and Mohamed Abd El Ghany(R))

If Egyptians were hoping for a unifying figure to emerge from their first truly democratic elections since the 1950s, they may not find it this time around.

The two candidates who fought for the position of president in Egypt's runoff election on June 16 and 17 were seen to have represented two polarizing extremes that have paralyzed Egyptian politics for more than a year.

In the final tally, the winner was Mohamed Morsi. Upon election, the 60-year-old resigned from the Freedom and Justice Party, which he had led. He added that he would serve all Egyptians and not any one interest.

The FJP is the political arm of the ubiquitous and once banned Muslim Brotherhood. The resignation severs Morsi's official ties with both organizations, although they remain a strong force in Egyptian society.

Previously suppressed under the authoritarian rule of the government of Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood won the largest number of seats in the Egyptian parliament during the six weeks of legislative voting that ended in January.

Morsi won over Ahmed Shafiq, 70, the blunt-talking former head of the Egyptian air force who won 24.9 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting in May and was considered to represent a secular future.

But he was tainted with his prior association with Mubarak, the despised and deposed former president, as well as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the group of generals who have been largely running the country under Mubarak.

They were accused of undermining the elections since they rewrote the constitution to empower themselves at the expense of the presidency on June 18.

Mohamed Morsi

Morsi is an America-educated engineer who spent the eight years in the U.S., earning a PhD at the University of Southern California in 1982. He then taught at California State University until 1985, when he returned home to Egypt to teach at the university in Zagazig.

Mohamed Morsi is the face of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and won 25.5 per cent of the vote in the first round. (AP Photo/Fredrik Persson)

Two of his children are U.S. citizens.

Morsi was elected to Egypt's lower house and sat as a nominal independent from 2000 to 2005. At the same time, he also served as a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in its guidance office until 2011.

He was not the party's first choice to contest the presidency. The more charismatic Khairat el-Shater was supposed to represent the FJP but his candidacy was one of three permanently disqualified by Egypt's electoral commission just before the first round.

Morsi has said he intends to integrate Sharia law into civil society, arguing that it is needed to rein in widespread corruption in government.

But more recently he has been downplaying the Islamic roots of his organization, trying to appeal to moderates. He tried to avoid speaking on religious topics for several weeks before the election, focusing more on how he will strive to develop co-operation and coalition between the disparate segments of Egyptian society.

He assured a women's group at the end of May that he wouldn't impose Islamic dress and would preserve their full rights. He also reassured Christians that they had a place in Egyptian society and that he would name a Christian to be his vice-presidential candidate "if possible," according to an Associated Press report.

The Brotherhood had initially said it would not contest the presidential election. But it changed its mind after doing so well in the legislative elections and nominated al-Shater, who was instantly seen as one of the front-runners.

Morsi is considered to be more conservative than al-Shater, but he has never really defined where he stands on the spectrum. He has emphasized the inclusivity of Islam, and some observers say that he may point towards Turkey's moderate Islamic government as a model for Egypt, to reassure voters.

Ahmed Shafiq

Best known outside Egypt as Mubarak's last prime minister, a role that lasted for 33 days before Mubarak stepped down, Shafiq had a long career in government and as a consummate military man dating back decades.

He was a pilot in the 1973 war with Israel, reportedly shooting down two aircraft. By 1996, he had become the supreme commander of the Egyptian Air Force and in 2002 he was chosen to join Mubarak's cabinet as the minister of civil aviation.

Ahmed Shafiq says that he represents a secular Egypt. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

In that role, he oversaw civil air travel and regulations, and reorganized the error-prone national carrier EgyptAir in a very hands-on, some say ruthless, way.

At one point, in 2002, when an EgyptAir pilot – a man considered a national hero for standing up to Israeli airline inspectors — risked the lives of 143 passengers by flying without permission in rough weather, Shafiq intervened directly in the case and dismissed the pilot, saying: "This pilot will never step inside an Egyptian plane again as pilot. He made a fatal mistake that cannot be tolerated."

He is known for not suffering incompetence and cronyism under his command and once said "I have a lot of friends, and they all know that I do not tolerate mistakes for the sake of friendship."

In this campaign, Shafiq is trying to establish himself as the secular bulwark against what he calls the "forces of darkness," specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in general.

He also has said that he wishes to protect the country from unbridled lawlessness and that he would take steps to curb rampant crime by using executions if necessary and "brutal force" to restore order.

His supporters include secularists, businessmen, military families and, in particular, the Coptic Christian minority, which fears the establishment of Islamic Sharia law.

But his surprising success in the first round was so polarizing that an angry mob set fire to his campaign headquarters in Cairo on the night the results were announced.