Ballot counting is nearing an end in Egypt after two days of historic voting to choose the country's first democratically elected president, with the Muslim Brotherhood and a former regime official likely to face one another in a runoff.
According to political campaigns and unofficial vote counts released by local media, the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi placed first and will square off against former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq on June 16 and 17.
Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist former opposition MP whose popularity surged in recent weeks, trailed Shafiq closely all day but ultimately fell short by what appeared to be several hundred thousand votes.
The official results likely will not be clear until Tuesday, when the presidential election commission has promised to release the final tallies. But the Muslim Brotherhood, which had stationed observers in nearly each of 13,000 polling stations throughout the country, echoed the news media tallies and declared the vote headed for a runoff between Morsi and Shafiq.
Though a notable victory for the Brotherhood, and one that reinforces the movement's reputation for effective political campaigning, the prospect of a Morsi-Shafiq runoff represents a worst-case scenario for many non-Islamist, progressive and pro-revolution Egyptians who must now choose between a conservative religious organisation and a man they view as an extension of the fallen Hosni Mubarak regime.
"If [Sabahi] doesn't win, it means the revolution didn't succeed, and it wasn't worth the martyrs dying for others to live," said 29-year-old Salim Suleiman, an amateur actor and Sabahi campaign volunteer.
The scene out Sabahi's headquarters in Cairo's Mohandiseen district was at once fiery and despondent, with groups of supporters chanting against Shafiq and the country's ruling military council while others sobbed and slammed their hands on parked cars in anger.
"It's bad for me, as a youth, to see the revolution dying. Most Egyptians disappointed me," Suleiman said.
Dalia Gelaa, a 24-year-old architectural engineer, said she found Shafiq's victory hard to believe.
"It's a disaster, really," she said. "There will be a next revolution soon."
But in the nearby Dokki district, in a handsome walled villa that serves as Shafiq's headquarters, the mood was calm and confident. Campaign workers walked about, and journalists were allowed to roam freely, though interviews were forbidden after a Shafiq spokesman reportedly told the New York Times that the revolution had ended, a comment he later denied.
Ahmed Radwan, a Shafiq volunteer, said the Islamists were only concerned with their interests, while the others were politicians who did not achieve anything.
"Shafiq is the only man who built something in this country," Radwan said, referring to Shafiq's tenure as civil aviation minister, when he oversaw the building of the Cairo airport.
Call for unity
Later on Friday, Muslim Brotherhood called on losing presidential candidates and political groups to take part in a dialogue aimed at "salvaging the nation'' ahead of the runoff.
Brotherhood official Essam el-Erian told a press conference that Morsi was calling on other presidential candidates, national personalities and groups that supported last year's uprising that toppled Mubarak to consult on how to "save the nation and the revolution".'
The call is an attempt by the Brotherhood to broaden their support ahead of what is expected to be a difficult runoff against Shafiq.
With 90 per cent of votes counted by Friday night, the Brotherhood announced it was now "completely clear" that their candidate would be in the second phase of voting.
"We have complete numbers now. Complete, after adding expatriate votes," Erian told the press conference.
Erian went on to warn that the "nation is in danger" if Shafiq wins the presidency.
"We will be united behind an initiative to unite the country and reach the revolutions objectives. Today, we must bring the country into unity in order to save the revolution and the blood that has been sacrificed," said Erian.
The presidential elections come months after parliamentary polls, which the Brotherhood won easily, earning around 47 per cent of parliament. The hard-line Salafi Nour Party won 25 per cent.
The new president's powers were meant to be outlined by the election in a new constitution drafted by a special assembly, but opposition parties boycotted the assembly when the Brotherhood was perceived to be using its near parliamentary majority to stack the deck in its favour.
The rise of Shafiq boosted by a sympathetic and powerful state media machine, was not widely predicted.
He appears to have attracted many voters who seek a return to security and normalcy in Egypt. Even so, he is perhaps the race's most divisive candidate, loathed by the revolution's passionate supporters.
In what may be a sign of things to come should Shafiq reach the runoff, a mob chased him from his polling place and pelted him with shoes on Wednesday.
Other surprises on election night included what appeared to be a less-than-impressive showing from presumed front-runner Amr Moussa, who ranked highest in many opinion polls before the election, and a surge by Hamdeen Sabahi, a left-wing activist from the rural Nile Delta who served two terms in parliament and had been imprisoned 17 times under previous presidents.
The election marks a crucial step in a messy and often bloody transition to democracy, overseen by a military council that has pledged to hand power to a new president by July 1.
More turbulence could follow if Shafiq is elected and his foes have already vowed to take to the streets if that happens.
A victory for Mursi could worsen tensions between resurgent Islamic-based parties and the army, the self-appointed guardian of the state.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|