CAIRO, Egypt — For the revolutionary youth of Tahrir Square, Egypt’s presidential election is the stuff nightmares are made of.
Following a first round of voting on May 23, they must now choose between a figure from the regime of the leader they ousted, Hosni Mubarak, and an Islamist contender whose party already holds a majority in parliament.
For the largely secular, liberal activists who spearheaded the anti-Mubarak uprising — but have so far failed to translate their support into any electoral gain — it is a difficult and some say demoralizing predicament.
Do they vote for Ahmed Shafiq, an anti-revolution candidate who says he will use his military credentials to thwart further protests, but who has promised to also keep the rising power of the Islamists in check? Or should they throw their weight behind Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a longtime opposition group but which many say has sold out the revolution for political power?
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And then there is the third option — to boycott the elections held under military rule, or spoil one’s vote (by writing in a statement of protest on the ballot) in a bid to deny the next president legitimacy.
“Everybody is saying: ‘We want neither, they are as bad each other. We don’t know what to do,’” said Hani Shukrallah, an Egyptian author and editor-in-chief of Ahram Online, a left-leaning English-language news site. “It’s a real dilemma for the revolutionary camp. And the debates are becoming very heated.”
Protesters and opponents of the Mubarak regime were energized again over the weekend, after a Cairo criminal court sentenced the former president to life in prison on Saturday, but acquitted a handful of police chiefs charged with killing demonstrators during the uprising last year.
Two of the election’s more pro-revolutionary, anti-regime candidates — the leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi and centrist-Islamist, Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh — together scored the highest number of votes, or 38 percent, in the first round.
But because the “revolution vote” was split between the two, who had failed to forge a pre-election alliance, Morsi and Shafiq secured the top slots with 25 percent and 24 percent of the vote, respectively.
As the former revolutionaries try to decide what to do before the June 16 run-off, activists said there are several key strands of debate emerging.
One of the strongest is that Egyptians should do whatever they can to keep Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and a supporter of the old regime, from the presidency — even if it means voting for Morsi, who has promised to implement Islamic law in this longtime secular state.
A coalition of liberal and secular forces recently wrote a list of demands for Morsi — including that he ensure fair representation of women, Christians and youth — in order to win their endorsement for president.
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“The Muslim Brotherhood are not part of the past regime, they’re not murderers. They’re just complicit,” said 32-year-old Wael Eskander, a leftist blogger. “A vote for Morsi would be a vote to end the current regime, which is the biggest threat and biggest source of injustice.”
While Eskander said he is planning on boycotting the second round — because he “does not want to compromise” his beliefs — he understands the appeal of Morsi to revolutionary voters.
Still, not all are convinced that voting for Morsi is equal to ousting the old regime, or at least the old regime’s way of doing things. Instead, it would allow the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), an already entrenched political power, to control yet another branch of government.
“There isn’t anything revolutionary about creating another NDP in the FJP,” said Ramy Yaacoub, a self-described secular political analyst, in reference to the Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which dominated the Egyptian government for three decades.
“There’s some naivety in thinking that a Morsi presidency would be better because he was not part of the regime,” he said. “You’re electing a member of a party in parliament that sold out the revolutionaries time and time again [since the revolution]."
Yaacoub’s sentiment echoes yet another viewpoint among the divided activists: Because Shafiq is a pro-Mubarak crony and a remnant of the old regime, he would act as a clear enemy of pro-democratic forces, more easily mobilizing anti-government protests.
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It would be a far more difficult task to paint the Brotherhood, who stood as the largest anti-Mubarak opposition group for years and has a stalwart, nationwide constituency, as adversaries of democracy.
“There’s also a much lesser group [among the activists] who are saying that we can get rid of Shafiq more easily, because he represents a regime that’s fractured and on its way down,” Shukrallah said. “The Brotherhood, they say, is a strong institution and there are regions whose support for them will go on forever.”
Among the boycotters, activists are pushing for democratic initiatives outside the ballot box, including organizing strikes, protests and consolidating the various political, liberal and secular groups for the next elections.
“The thing is, in the activist community, they always look at what’s bad, and try to tell everyone what is bad about what’s happening,” said Mohamed Abd Al Hamid, a young liberal activist. “They never search for solutions.”
Al Hamid said he voted at the last minute in the first round, but has not yet decided whether he will vote in the run-offs.
And while many are devastated by the election results, not all is lost, Al Hamid said.
“We took to the streets to change things [under Mubarak]. We had the power then,” he said. “We as people, we can continue to convince people they have the power to change what happens outside of the elections.”