Letter from Cairo: The lesser of two evils

The uprising's euphoria has given way to such anger at the limited presidential options that many may boycott the vote

Powered by automated translation

Embittered and frustrated, many Egyptians see this weekend's presidential run-off as a choice between cholera and the plague.

It was supposed to be the fruition of a stunning uprising by millions of Egyptians against an authoritarian regime. The election was to symbolise the end of 16 months of political tumult that changed a nation whose people had for decades seemed resigned to accepting dictatorship as the price of stability.

Hopes were high. Expectations knew no limits and the young men and women behind last year's uprising were filled with pride at what they had accomplished. They dreamt of a democratic Egypt, a nation where freedoms were guaranteed, where social justice was a priority and the long dominant military finally out of politics and back to the business of fending off outside threats.

But it was not to be.

Today and tomorrow, Egyptians will choose a successor to Hosni Mubarak, the authoritarian ruler toppled in February last year. Going head-to-head are the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq, a career air-force officer widely viewed as an extension of the old regime. His rival is Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to curtail freedom and inject more religion into government if its candidate wins.

As if having to choose between "two evils" were not enough, constitutional court rulings on Thursday dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and ruled that Mr Shafiq could stay in the race despite a law barring regime figures from running for office.

The rulings came one day after the military-backed government of prime minister Kamal El Ganzouri handed the military police and intelligence agents the right to arrest civilians for a host of suspected crimes. The move was viewed by many as a de facto declaration of martial law two weeks after the end of emergency laws that had been in force for 31 years.

Combined, everything pointed to what Brotherhood leaders and prominent activists described as a "coup" by the generals who took over from Mubarak. That the coup came just days before the presidential run-off and two weeks before the generals are supposed to hand over power shocked the nation, sparked a wave of anger and sent revolutionaries pondering what went wrong.

"We joked our way through the revolution and its aftermath. Now the joke is on us," the activist Marwa El Naggar wrote on Twitter yesterday.

The events of the past few days could have boosted Mr Shafiq's chances of winning the presidency. Widely seen as a favourite of the generals, Mr Shafiq acted every bit the victor in his final campaign rally on Thursday night.

Energised and upbeat, he stood at attention like a soldier as the national anthem played, and sang along with the 500 flag-waving supporters. They chanted: "We love you, Mr President", and he walked away from the podium blowing kisses to them.

He did not gloat at the parliamentary misfortunes of his rival's party, but said he looked forward to a new assembly that "realistically represents the Egyptian people". He also praised the armed forces and promised something to everyone if he becomes president, from farmers, workers and pensioners to football fans and students.

The generals, meanwhile, took the unusual step of sending out convoys of army vehicles from which patriotic songs blared while leaflets were distributed urging Egyptians to vote.

Mr Morsi's first reaction to the rulings was diplomatic. He said he accepted them though he did not like them and, striking a presidential note, said that as the future president of Egypt he has to respect court rulings. Curiously, he added: "I love the armed forces."

Diplomacy, however, gave way to anger late on Thursday when he addressed a news conference.

"We are going to the ballot boxes to say no to the losers, the killers, the criminals," he screamed.

That the choice for the next president of Egypt is now between an Islamist and a "feloul", the word Egyptians use to refer to Mubarak-regime loyalists, has given rise to a fast-growing movement to boycott the vote.

Already many of the revolutionaries along with liberals are urging voters to cross out the names of the two on the ballot and write: "The revolution will continue."

Regardless of the outcome, Egypt has been polarised by the Shafiq-Morsi rivalry in a way it had not seen before and election-related violence is widely anticipated today and tomorrow. Beyond that, many believe that the "street" is fatigued by 18 months of protests and the backlash against the events of the past few days may materialise only several months down the road.

There have been no protests by MPs beyond angry words on the evening talk shows although the Brotherhood, which controlled just under half of parliament's seats, cryptically warned of "bad days" ahead.

But one prominent liberal Naguib Sawirisi, a wealthy businessman, saw a silver lining.

"This is the last chance for the liberal forces to unite under the banner of a civil, free and modern state in preparation for the next [parliamentary] election," he wrote on his Twitter account.