A Worst-Case Scenario in Egypt?

The choice is between the ancien régime and an Islamist state. Neither scenario is particularly good or particularly democratic.

Egypt’s January 25 Revolution last year was supposed to dispel Hosni Mubarak’s false dichotomy: the choice, he often warned, was between his regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sixteen months after Mubarak relinquished power, that is still the choice Egyptians will make when voting for his successor.

Last week, Egyptians voted in the freest and fairest presidential election in the history of the Arab world. The process was new, but the interests of the voters were not. Of the two candidates that received the most votes, those who will go head to head in a June 16–17 run-off, one hails from the country’s most established Islamist opposition organization—and post-Mubarak Egypt’s most powerful political group—and the other from the ancien régime of patronage networks and military dominance struggling to maintain its position in a new Egypt.

Mohamed Morsi, chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), has promised that Egypt will be ruled by sharia, Islamic law. Ahmed Shafik, a former air-force commander and the last prime minister under Mubarak—who allegedly referred to Shafik as his “third son”—campaigned on restoring law and order and countering the rise of Egypt’s Islamists. On Monday, the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) announced these two candidates, of thirteen in the race, garnered just under half the votes, with Morsi coming out slightly more than a percentage point ahead.

Egypt’s two remaining presidential candidates secured their bases in the first round and will attempt to court the supporters of other candidates with more centrist positions. Both Morsi and Shafik used victory press conferences to appeal to revolutionaries: Morsi said a vote for him is a vote to protect the revolution; Shafik announced he shares the revolution’s goals of “bread, freedom and social justice.”

Despite this posturing, many analysts and at least one opposition party have called the Shafik-Morsi showdown the “worst-case scenario.” For eighteen days in early 2011, the world watched as Egyptians in Tahrir Square challenged and later toppled President Mubarak in the name of democracy. With a presidential runoff between Morsi and Shafik, where does the prospect of a successful democratic transition in Egypt stand?

Shafik is the epitome of the old regime, with its intolerance of dissent, heavy-handed security forces and crony capitalism. Omar Ashour, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told CNN that Shafik could not win without vote rigging and that his election as president could result in a second revolution. Given that Shafik campaigns as the “law-and-order” candidate, his election very likely could result in a violent clash between protesters and security forces. The very evening Shafik’s second-place finish was confirmed, his campaign’s Cairo headquarters was ransacked.

Morsi has the Islamist vote, probably Egypt’s largest constituency, in his favor. If Shafik wins, this will play into Al Qaeda’s narrative—a narrative that until now has been largely rejected in Egypt—that Islamist gains cannot be achieved without violence. Thanks to the Libyan revolution and years of smuggling in the Sinai, Egypt is awash in weaponry if its former jihadis decide to return to their terror-filled insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s.