Egypt Votes: A Primer on the Arab World's First Free Presidential Election

Likely outcomes of the heavily contested first round, and what happens next

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A volunteer for Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa folds t-shirts. (Reuters)

CAIRO, Egypt -- What should we look for after the votes are counted in Egypt this week -- or rather, if the ballot box contents are counted, rather than trashed or illicitly augmented?

Once Egyptians go to the polls on Wednesday to choose a president, no matter what happens next, the transition from impermeable autocracy to something hopefully more accountable will move to another, more clarifying, stage.

The integrity of the process will be the first hurdle. And if Egyptian monitors and political parties endorse the count and the turnout is significant, as expected, the results will be the second.

Because opinion polling in Egypt has not yet had a semblance of accuracy and since there is no precedent for a contested presidential election in Egypt, there are simply no meaningful metrics to handicap the race. Many Egypt watchers have picked likely front-runners, but this is nothing more than educated guesswork. My own prediction is that the top three finishers are likely to be Amr Mousa, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Mohamed Morsy, and that whichever of the two Islamists makes it to the runoff will win.

But this is little more than high-level gut-work, based on a reading of the parliamentary election results earlier this year, Egypt's only real election since 1952; an assessment of public opinion and emerging political thought; haphazard street interviews; and the size and quality of crowds at electoral rallies.

The electorate is fragmented, with at least five candidates have attracted significant followings. As a result, that many or more could poll in the double digits. The field is wide open, especially because of the fluid nature of political allegiances in this period of transition. The major constituencies will be split among rival candidates from the same camp: Islamists, revolutionaries, law-and-order nationalists, liberals.

Men sitting at a café during the four-and-half-hour presidential debate a week ago told me they supported both the Muslim Brotherhood and leading secular candidate, Amr Moussa, who is presenting himself as a sort of elder statesman. Some told me they were attracted simultaneously to Hamdeen Sabahi, the secular Nasserist revolutionary favorite, as well as Ahmed Shafiq, the revanchist retired general and Mubarak's last prime minister. That's a sign of emerging politics, as voters begin the complex process of ranking their own preferences. How important is a candidate's connection to the old regime? Position on law-and-order versus reform? Stringency on clerical regulation of civil law? Strategy on reviving Egypt's moribund economy?

None of the choices are clear-cut, and none of the popular candidates has an uncomplicated constellation of views. For instance, the most Islamist candidate, the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, is more rigid in his religious views and less sophisticated in his economic ideas than other senior Brotherhood leaders. And the only secular candidate who supported the Tahrir Revolution from the beginning, Hamdeen Sabahi, is also an unreconstructed Nasserist, which is a bit like campaigning in America today as a third-party reformer who wants to bring back Communism.

The top two finishers will go to runoff, to be held on June 16 and 17, which will determine Egypt's president. Here are a few of the possible outcomes and their likely implications.

Felool runoff: Moussa vs Shafiq. This is the worst of the plausible scenarios, but it's possible. The felool, or "remnants" (meaning leftovers from the old, Hosni Mubarak regime), could prevail. Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister, could finish atop the polls with Ahmed Shafiq, the ex-general who, during his campaign, promised that he would never let a minority group of protesters overthrow a president backed by millions. Never mind that Mubarak said the same thing in his final weeks in power. In this case, Islamist voters and secular revolutionaries would both be likely to take to the streets, convinced that all the political achievements of the Tahrir uprising were under threat. We could expect a tense power struggle with lots of public uproar, and potentially even more uncertainty and violence than we've seen over the last year.

Islamist runoff: Morsi vs Aboul Fotouh. The Brotherhood's Morsi could finish at the top along with the former Brother, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. In this case, we could expect a surge of conditional popular support for Aboul Fotouh, the more conciliatory and moderate of the two -- but we should also expect the military, some of the wealthy magnates, and the anti-Islamist secular constituency to bristle and polarize. The non-Islamist politicians might pursue obstructionist tactics, in the belief that their secular principles are under attack.

Glass half full. In this scenario, the runoff features what I call "consensus" candidates, liked by some and acceptable to many, even with reservations. These candidates elicit intense dislike from a minority of Egyptians, but a majority would be willing to live with them. On this list, I'd include Aboul Fotouh, Moussa, and Sabahi. Of the likely outcomes, this is the best; it means that the new president would be unlikely to face a public insurrection, and that he would be able to govern with at least the grudging consent of the majority during the next phase of Egypt's transition.

Wild card. Given the unpredictability of the process and the split vote, the finalists could include one or two unexpected faces. The revolutionary Sabahi could face Amr Moussa, disenchanting those revolutionaries with an Islamist hue. The reactionary ex-regime Shafiq could face the reactionary Islamist Morsi, leaving a huge swathe of the electorate without a simpatico candidate. The ruling generals could mistrust both finalists and organize a more concerted power grab.

Whichever two candidates make it to the run-off, the very fact that a genuine presidential contest is taking place has irreversible historic implications. Egypt is writing a new political history for itself, an inevitably messy process. Any outcome (short of a Shafiq victory) will likely represent a marked improvement from political life under Mubarak. And whatever the results, the politicization of the electorate will continue, and the public is unlikely to forfeit its newfound sense of ownership over the government.