Billboards on a highway in Cairo show Egyptian presidential candidates… (Amr Nabil / Associated Press )
CAIRO — He doesn't inspire and few would call him charming but Mohamed Morsi is within reach of fulfilling the Muslim Brotherhood's 84-year-old dream of imposing political Islam on an Egypt that for generations has been dominated by harsh colonial and secular masters.
The 60-year-old presidential candidate speaks of inclusion even as ultraconservative clerics herald him as the leader a new Islamic caliphate. He has reached out to Egyptians with a kaleidoscope of unpolished sound bites — while calling Israelis "killers" and "vampires" — but the Brotherhood's opaque nature has masked Morsi's deeper political intentions if he and his fellow Islamists end up controlling the government.
The two-day election runoff beginning Saturday between Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, who served as the last prime minister of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, remains too close to call. But when the votes are counted, Morsi, a stocky, Islamic conservative with a trimmed beard, will learn if this agitated country has agreed to enter an uncertain new era or return to the grip of the past.
Egyptians face the starkest of choices after 16 months of unrest. A slight plurality of voters in the first round of presidential balloting supported liberal, Socialist or moderate Islamic candidates. Now they must choose between Shafik, who many deplore as an echo from a repressive regime and Morsi, who many liberal activists believe will curtail civil liberties for women, Christians and other non-Muslims.
The central question concerning Morsi is: Would he bring forth a brash, entrepreneurial Islamic democracy like Turkey'sor gravitate toward the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states? Either way, Cairo, long the cultural center of the Arab world, will influence governments rising from the rebellions that have swept the Middle East and North Africa.
For many, a vote for Morsi is less an embrace of the Brotherhood, which controls nearly 50% of parliament, than a condemnation of Shafik. The secular April 6 Youth Movement, which was at the forefront of last year's uprising that toppled Mubarak, announced this week it is backing Morsi for that reason.
"I endorse Morsi without a doubt," said Ahmad Nabil, a liberal activist. "If Shafik comes, he'll bring back the entire old regime.... This does not mean I'm not fully convinced of Morsi, but I don't want to give Shafik any legitimacy."
Morsi wasn't the one the Brotherhood wanted representing it at this seminal moment. Its first presidential candidate was Khairat Shater, a wealthy businessman who spent years in Mubarak's prisons and was the group's key strategist. The election commission disqualified him over his criminal past, and Morsi, who quickly became known as the spare tire, accepted the mantle of the nation's best organized political machine.
Morsi, who earned his doctorate in engineering at USC, was the disciplinary and often unseen hand in the Brotherhood's leadership. He is more comfortable in small gatherings than in the spotlight and his goal, which he refers to as the distillation of Islam, is to revive Egypt's economy and return the country to its regional prominence.
"The presidency will not be reduced to one person," he said. "The age of superman has failed and gone. The world is no longer like that. I am not like that."
Morsi was arrested during the revolt against Mubarak but he is regarded by liberals as less an embodiment for change than an Islamist who will emphasize religion at the expense the country's deep social and financial problems. He and the Brotherhood are often seen as chameleons, pretending to speak for the revolution while advancing their political agenda in quiet deals with Egypt's military rulers.
Several liberal parties boycotted negotiations this week on naming a panel to draft a constitution over accusations that Islamists were maneuvering for control. A leading Egyptian judge has suggested that the judiciary, which monitors elections, may put aside its impartiality to stop a Brotherhood that wants to "destroy this country."
This is not "the time for Morsi," said Nour Eldin, who stood in Tahrir Square recently. "The Brotherhood is too closed and they make decisions without consulting the people. If they come to power they will divide Egyptians. We don't need that now."
Morsi's campaign headquarters in Cairo is surrounded by barricaded streets, a testament to Egypt's reshaped political terrain and fresh ironies. The villa sits across from the Ministry of Interior, which for decades jailed and tortured thousands of Brotherhood members. The juxtaposition speaks less to harmony than to a hint of battles to come.
Men in suits hurry up stairs and disappear into-air conditioned offices; a banner of Morsi flutters outside. Talk swirls that Morsi might choose one-time enemy Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a progressive Islamist who finished fourth in the first round of voting, as his vice president.
Nothing is certain, said Tarek Farhat, a Morsi spokesman. But after decades of running nationwide religious and social programs, including clinics and schools, the Brotherhood's time has come, he said, to occupy the presidential palace.
"We need to finish and the revolution must continue," said Farhat. "We need the people just to give us our chance. If we fail, they can kick us out in four years."
But for the revolution to succeed, Egypt's generals, who have helped suppress Islamists since the 1950s, must step aside. When asked if the army, which on Wednesday was granted sweeping powers by the Ministry of Justice to arrest criminals and political activists, would relinquish authority if Morsi wins, Farhat said: "The military council has just one choice. They promised the people to transfer power to a civilian government."
Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.