The Silver Lining in Egypt’s Presidential Race

Egyptians are still reeling from the results of the first round of voting in the country’s first freely contested presidential elections.  The outcome?  The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi will now face former Mubarak prime minister (and fellow air force commander) Ahmed Shafiq in a run-off set for June 17. While there is apparent hopelessness over such a “nightmare scenario” outcome that pits a conservative Islamist against a former regime stalwart, there is a silver lining.

By and large, the elections shattered the myth that individual Egyptian actors, whether the powerful Muslim Brotherhood or the boisterous protesters of Tahrir, could achieve the goals of the revolution on their own. This realization may finally compel anti-regime forces from across Egypt’s highly fractured and polarized political landscape to work together toward a common cause, namely beginning the long, difficult task of rolling back a military regime that remains deeply entrenched.

Sixteen months of political infighting among the various Islamist, liberal, leftist, youth and other forces unleashed by the revolution, as well as highly distracting (and largely inconsequential) debates over Egypt’s Islamic identity, have consumed precious time and resources while allowing former regime elements to re-group. In the past six months alone, candidates associated with the Mubarak regime went from being virtually wiped out in last winter’s parliamentary elections, where they took just 3 percent of the seats, to the stunning 24 percent secured by Ahmed Shafiq in last week’s presidential poll. A victory by Shafiq would mean a reconstituting of the regime and a likely defeat of the revolution.

Despite coming in first with 25 percent of the vote, and even with the full backing of the Brotherhood’s legendary political machine, Morsi is unlikely to defeat Shafiq—who has the unspoken backing of the ruling military council and a pliant state media apparatus—without substantial backing from non-Islamist forces. This is an exceedingly tall order given their growing resentment against the Brotherhood for its perceived “go it alone” attitude throughout the transit.

Whether Egyptians will be able to save their revolution is anyone’s guess. Negotiations between the Brotherhood and various liberal and revolutionary forces are already underway, even as the prospect of the regime’s return is sparking renewed violence and instability. For all its polarizing and potentially destabilizing implications, however, the much dreaded Morsi-Shafiq presidential run-off may be just what Egypt’s fractious political forces need in order to re-focus their energies on battling the regime instead of one another.