CAIRO -- Egypt's two most polarizing presidential candidates appeared to be headed toward a runoff election to decide whether the nation will be ruled by an evolving political Islam or return to the secularist spirit that shaped Hosni Mubarak's toppled police state.
Official results in Egypt's first free presidential election have not been announced but projections on Friday showed that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi will likely battle Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve Mubarak, in a June runoff. Some Brotherhood officials suggested that Morsi may win outright by capturing more than 50% of the vote.
Egyptians couldn't face a starker choice, one that shows that despite a year of upheaval the pillars of the past remain strong and are colliding over the future of the country. Morsi represents the Islamist ideals of the Brotherhood, for decades the most potent opposition to the old regime. Shafik is the unabashed embodiment of the Mubarak era, a setback to a revolution that inspired rebellions across the Arab world.
"It is clear that the runoff will be between [the Brotherhood's] Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik," a Brotherhood election official who asked not to be named told Reuters.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which observed the ballot counting in many districts, claimed Morsi won 30.8% of the vote followed by Shafik with 22.3%.
Exit polls were suggesting a similar scenario. But liberal Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was still in the running. The big surprises were the poor showing by Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister who was a consistent front-runner before the elections, and strong backing for Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist nationalist regarded as an alternative to Islamists and Mubarak remnants.
Ahram Online reported in a headline: "Morsi leads, Shafik, Sabahi neck-and-neck for second place." The pronouncement was a testament to the fluidity of an election that has enthralled a nation with 13 candidates and a burst of political freedom that once would have been unthinkable.
Morsi's surge in the final days of the campaign spoke to the Brotherhood's vast organizational machine that overcame concerns that Islamists, who control parliament, would dominate the government and instill sharia law. Many Egyptians were angered when the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate, but the world's premier Islamist group was confidant it could rally voters behind the uncharismatic Morsi.
Shafik was prime minister during the bloody, final days of Mubarak's government. The retired air force general's law-and-order campaign portrayed Islamists as a threat to freedom and promised to end months of protests. He appealed to millions of Egyptians seeking stability after last year's revolt brought economic turmoil and rising crime. A Shafik victory, however, would likely fill Tahrir Square with activists and demonstrators.
Final election results are expected to be released in coming days. About half of Egypt's eligible 50 million voters cast ballots. The country's ruling military council has promised to turn power over to a civilian government by July.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Egyptian election officials count ballots at a Cairo polling station. Credit: Amel Pain / EPA