The Egyptian presidential election was held last week. No candidate received 50 percent of the vote, so a runoff will be held between the two leading candidates, Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi represented the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and received 25.3 percent of the vote, while Shafiq, a former Egyptian air force commander and the last prime minister to serve in Hosni Mubarak's administration, received 24.9 percent. There were, of course, charges of irregularities, but in general the results made sense. The Islamist faction had done extremely well in the parliamentary election, and fear of an Islamist president caused the substantial Coptic community, among others, to support the candidate of the old regime, which had provided them at least some security.
Morsi and Shafiq effectively tied in the first round, and either can win the next round. Morsi's strength is that he has the support of both the Islamist elements and those who fear a Shafiq presidency and possible return to the old regime. Shafiq's strength is that he speaks for those who fear an Islamist regime. The question is who will win the non-Islamist secularists' support. They oppose both factions, but they are now going to have to live with a president from one of them. If their secularism is stronger than their hatred of the former regime, they will go with Shafiq. If not, they will go with Morsi. And, of course, it is unclear whether the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military committee that has ruled Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, will cede any real power to either candidate, especially since the constitution hasn't even been drafted.
This is not how the West, nor many Egyptians, thought the Arab Spring would turn out in Egypt. Their mistake was overestimating the significance of the democratic secularists, how representative the anti-Mubarak demonstrators were of Egypt as a whole, and the degree to which those demonstrators were committed to Western-style democracy rather than a democracy that represented Islamist values.
What was most underestimated was the extent to which the military regime had support, even if Mubarak did not. Shafiq, the former prime minister in that regime, could very well win. The regime may not have generated passionate support or even been respected in many ways, but it served the interests of any number of people. Egypt is a cosmopolitan country, and one that has many people who still take seriously the idea of an Arab, rather than Islamist, state. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamism and have little confidence in the ability of other parties, such as the socialists, who came in third, to protect them. For some, such as the Copts, the Islamists are an existential threat. The military regime, whatever its defects, is a known bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. The old order is attractive to many because it is known; what the Muslim Brotherhood will become is not known and is frightening to those committed to secularism. They would rather live under the old regime.
What was misunderstood was that while there was in fact a democratic movement in Egypt, the liberal democrats who wanted a Western-style regime were not the ones exciting popular sentiment. What was exciting it was the vision of a popularly elected Islamist coalition moving to create a regime that institutionalized Islamic religious values.
Westerners looked at Egypt and saw what they wanted and expected to see. They looked at Egyptians and saw themselves. They saw a military regime operating solely on brute force without any public support. They saw a mass movement calling for the overthrow of the regime and assumed that the bulk of the movement was driven by the spirit of Western liberalism. The result is that we have a showdown not between the liberal democratic mass and a crumbling military regime but between a representative of the still-powerful regime (Shafiq) and the Muslim Brotherhood.