Egyptians on a Cairo bridge hold signs urging a boycott of the upcoming presidential… (James Lawler Duggan / MCT )
CAIRO — A movement to boycott this week's runoff presidential election is gaining momentum, threatening Egypt's restive transition to democracy and revealing a sharpening disdain by voters over the choice between a conservative Islamist and a holdover from the old guard.
That dilemma highlights the polarizing struggle between political Islam and the secular police state. The state has handily won this battle since the 1950s. But the country's first free presidential election shows Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in a tight race with Ahmed Shafik, a remnant of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's government.
Between their camps lies a chasm of disaffected Egyptians demanding adherence to the ideals that have spurred uprisings across the Arab world since early last year. These voters — representing a slight majority of those who cast ballots in the first round last month — are liberals, socialists, moderate Islamists and others who fear a landmark moment for democracy is being lost to established, unimaginative voices.
"It does not make sense to choose between two wrongs," Mona Ammar, a protester on Tahrir Square, said of Morsi and Shafik. "If Shafik wins we will rise against him, but it could even be more dangerous if Morsi wins because he will try and use religion to placate and stall the people."
Such sentiment lays bare divisions rising from a revolution that for a tantalizing moment promised unity. But from that day 16 months ago when Mubarak relinquished power, fissures deepened and young progressive activists failed to inspire a political renaissance. The nation has turned spiritless and bitter; there is concern that the election on Saturday and Sunday will ignite fresh unrest.
The boycott is loosely organized around activist and revolutionary groups that have watched their relevance ebb. Once-prominent organizations like April 6 despise Shafik as a symbol of the repressive past but they also criticize Morsi as anathema to their desire for sweeping change.
Two constitutional court decisions this week could further jeopardize the fragile order imposed by the nation's interim military rulers. The court is expected to decide whether Shafik should be disqualified from the ballot over a law passed by parliament in April barring top officials in Mubarak's regime from the presidency. Judges will also rule on whether to effectively abolish the new Islamist-led parliament.
"People once thought that the presidential elections would be the key to stability and change," said Nazly Hussein, a human rights advocate. "They would assume I was boycotting because I'm one of the revolutionary activists. Now people tell me they want to boycott because they feel [the military] has ... pressured them into voting for two bad candidates."
Morsi and Shafik have been campaigning to widen their appeal, but millions of prospective voters are not roused by either candidate. Shafik — the epitome of the aging military men running the country — told young voters last week: "Fear not for your future.... I follow what you write on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter."
The uncharismatic Morsi has been busy making promises to everyone from leftists to families of hundreds of victims killed by Mubarak's security forces during last year's revolt. But the Brotherhood, which has broken political deals and erratically run parliament, is viewed with suspicion that it will steep the country in Islamic law.
"Close your eyes and imagine the shape of the world with Morsi," read a full-page ad attacking Morsi in the liberal Al Dustour newspaper. "Imagine your mother, sister, wife and daughter, imagine yourself as a second-class moderate Muslim or a third-class Christian, who would you vote for?"
The ad shows how off-kilter the nation's politics have become. Al Dustour was a defiant voice against the Mubarak government, which arrested its journalists and shut down its offices. The paper has become more sensationalistic under new ownership and is endorsing Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister, over fears that civil liberties would suffer more under the Brotherhood.
Potential political kingmakers remain unimpressed. Hamdeen Sabahi, a nationalist socialist who finished third in the first round of voting, has said his party will boycott the election. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a liberal Islamist who came in fourth, has not explicitly endorsed Morsi because of concerns that the Brotherhood is not committed to inclusive government. Aboul Fotouh's campaign staff, however, announced Sunday that it would support Morsi.
"Our dispute with Morsi is political, while our dispute with Mubarak's candidate is criminal," said Aboul Fotouh, who suggested that a boycott could lead to voter fraud. "Bring down the remnants [Shafik] and do not boycott the election."
The anticipatory thrill that swept Tahrir Square on those winter days in 2011 that ended six decades of autocratic rule has faded. The other night, men from opposing political camps bickered, as if struggling to find relevance in arguments that no longer matter. The square is spotted with a few tents and tattered flags, a reminder of all that is unfulfilled.
It is also a place where current turmoil is reawakening old prejudices. A small group of women protesting against sexual harassment was attacked recently by men hurling stones and swinging belts. The women ran, disappearing down side streets past graffiti about the uprising's heroes and martyrs.
Abdellatif is a special correspondent in The Times' Cairo bureau.