“Like choosing between cancer and terminal AIDS,” is how Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa characterized the presidential election last year in his native Peru between leftist Ollante Humala, who was once jailed his role in a failed military coup, and Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former strongman ruler Alberto Fujimori.
With the first free presidential election in Egypt last week, the international press is already using terms such as Vargas Llosa’s to characterize the two candidates who emerged on top and will meet in a run-off June 15-16: Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafiq, retired Air Force general and the last prime minister under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
“Polarizing” is how the French television network France24 led into its story on the run-off. The New York Times dubbed the coming bout between Morsi and Shafiq “a wrenching choice” for the majority of Egyptian voters who went for one of the eleven other candidates in the initial race. The Guardian warned that the coming showdown between two extremes in the Second Republic of Egypt was a “nightmare scenario.”
For all the outcry of “fraud” from the two runners-up to Morsi and Shafiq and calls for a recount, the results did get the seal of approval from former President Jimmy Carter, whose organization, The Carter Center, monitored the election. While voicing complaints about “violations” in the voting, Carter told reporters that they “did not violate the integrity of the elections as a whole.”
In the coming days, it is almost certain the White House will voice neutrality in the race. But as to who the U.S. is in all likelihood rooting for in private, that would be the 70-year-old Shafiq.
Washington is clearly nervous about Morsi’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the recent cases of persecution against Egypt’s Coptic Christians orchestrated by Brotherhood members. In addition, where both Morsi and Shafiq have said they will honor the 1978 Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, Morsi has suggested that Egypt should work to unite the different Palestinian factions to ensure Israel makes concessions leading to a Palestinian state. Shafiq has said he supports Camp David, period.
Much has been made in the international press about Shafiq’s ties to Mubarak’s regime. Although Shafiq did serve as air force commandant under the deposed strongman, Mubarak made him prime minister only in the waning weeks of his regime in 2011. At a press conference following the first round of voting, Shafiq—who has never backed down for his admiration of Mubarak — nonetheless insisted he supported the revolution and there would be no return to the autocratic rule which ruled Egypt from 1952 until last year.
Like Rudy Giuliani in his first race for mayor of New York, Shafiq vowed a crackdown on Islamist-backed law breaking and violence. This “law and order” stance undoubtedly helped him win more support from more conservative Egyptians outside Cairo who are increasingly worried about growing lawlessness. In addition, he has vowed to protect the Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of the country’s population. (One well-known Coptic Christian is Joseph Boutros-Ghali, Mubarak’s finance minister and former development committee chairman of the International Monetary Fund, who was forced to flee to exile in London last year).
There are those on the left who claim that the generals now serving as stopgap rulers of Egypt stage-managed Shafiq’s second-place showing with Morsi through vote-rigging. The Carter Center certainly didn’t reach this conclusion. Moreover, attempts by the Moslem Brotherhood to hold meetings that would bring other candidates to Morsi’s side have so far not amounted to anything. None have endorsed Morsi against Shafiq.
In Peru, the leftist Humala narrowly won the run-off that Vargas Llosa and others found so distasteful and that country has moved on. So, too, will Egypt after June 15. But on the face of what is known about each candidate, it would seem to be better for the U.S. to be dealing with a “President Shafiq.”