CAIRO, Egypt — Egyptian protesters set fire last night to the campaign headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, the controversial presidential contender, following the official announcement of Egypt’s first round of presidential elections in Cairo.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square to rally against Shafiq, a member and unabashed supporter of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, toppled last year following a wave of popular protests. At least eight people were arrested, but no injuries or deaths were reported.
Campaigning on law and order and a heavy-handed crackdown on anti-regime protesters, Shafiq secured second place in last week’s vote. In what many Egyptians say is the most polarizing outcome of the elections, Shafiq will face the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in a run-off that pits Islamists against a Mubarak holdover on June 16.
Both Shafiq and Morsi scored surprise, upset victories against the other candidates, after trailing considerably in pre-election polls behind secular-liberal candidate, Amr Moussa, and independent Islamist, Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh.
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Analysts and observers of Egyptian politics are reeling from the results, cautioning that right now the Egyptian electorate is so dynamic — with alliances and voter sentiment shifting so rapidly and unpredictably — that attempting to accurately forecast a winner of next month’s run-off is ultimately futile.
“Everything I thought I knew about this country has collapsed,” said Hisham Kassem, independent publisher and longtime opposition activist, of the divisive election results. “All analyses of the polls are so far unconvincing. The game has changed considerably.”
For weeks preceding the elections — the first free, multi-candidate polls in Egypt’s history — both local and international think-tank surveys put Moussa, a former minister of foreign affairs and centrist figure, in the lead, with as much as 40 percent of the vote.
In the final tally, Moussa scored just under 11 percent.
In another bombshell, Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leftist-socialist candidate who, along with Morsi, never broke 10 percent in pre-election surveys, won both of Egypt’s most populated governorates — Cairo and the Islamist stronghold of Alexandria — to land in third place nationally.
Morsi, with the strong electoral machine of the Brotherhood behind him, was catapulted to first place with the most votes, after being written off as a weak candidate with only 8 percent of the vote prior to the vote.
The Brotherhood flourished for years as Egypt’s largest and most organized opposition force.
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Some observers blamed the gross miscalculations on the difficulties of conducting research in Egypt, particularly in gauging voter sentiment in rural areas.
The government-affiliated Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, for example, conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,200 respondents for their surveys, but did not publish the socio-economic breakdown of the survey’s subjects.
“But sometimes in face-to-face interviews, villagers are influenced by having a village elder nearby,” said Rasha Hassan, a social researcher with Harassmap, an Egyptian, online social initiative that tracks sexual harassment trends through text messaging. “You have to take [things like this] into account.”
Telephone polls are also misleading, because most rural village households do not have landlines — only mobile phones.
Still, the polls, including one from the DC-based Brookings Institution that was in fact quite rigorous, could not capture the tumult and fluidity of voter sentiment in Egypt’s transition period, said Michael Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York.
Similar to other countries that have made the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, the Egyptian political landscape is likely to change drastically from one election to the next in the immediate post-revolution period, experts say.
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There are many factors that could have swayed the vote, even at the last minute.
Least surprising was Morsi’s jump to first place, buoyed by the mammoth grassroots network of the Muslim Brotherhood that energized voters to go to the polls, analysts say. Many of their core ideological voters, particularly in Egypt’s impoverished southern region, may not have been represented accurately in the surveys.
Kassem said he had predicted there would be two strong voting currents — Islamist and pro-stability — but that the so-called “stability” vote would be represented by Moussa, who echoed many ordinary Egyptians’ sentiments by chiding demonstrators for spreading chaos.
Shafiq, as a member of the old regime who emphasized his military credentials during the campaign, did not have a true constituency among Egyptian voters, he said.
Shafiq was in fact ranking low in the polls, until a last-minute surge at the end of May, when several surveys from the Cabinet Information Decision and Support Center, a government-linked research group, put Shafiq in the lead.
Hanna credits his rise to violent clashes between protesters and military police at the ministry of defense in the Abbaseya neighborhood of Cairo earlier this month, and state media still controlled by Mubarak holdovers.
“Obviously the control of state media, the law and order narrative put forward by SCAF" — the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, made up of Egypt’s ruling generals — "is potent in combination with Abbaseya,” Hanna said. “It had a big impact on the election, drawing the stability vote from Moussa to Shafiq, whom some state-run polls were putting in the lead in the last days of the campaign period.”
But to draw a linear plot from secular and Islamist voter choices in the first round to the run-off would be a mistake, Hanna and Kassem say.
Saleh Ali Ahmed, a 39-year-old voter and self-described devout Muslim from the Brotherhood stronghold of Ismailia province, exemplifies the complexity of the Egyptian electorate.
“If the run-off is between Morsi and Shafiq, I will vote for Shafiq,” he said on the first day of the polls, before the official results were announced. “Morsi is very weak within the Brotherhood, and he will have no real power.”
Kassem said one can assume that those who voted for Moussa, a non-Islamist, will switch to Shafiq, who has promised to curb rising Islamist power.
“But it is just a guess,” he said. “And anyone’s guess is as good as mine.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo, Egypt