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The idiot’s guide to Egypt’s election

The idiot’s guide to Egypt’s election

If you’re waking up this morning and trying to catch up on the results of the Egyptian presidential election, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Preliminary vote counts first suggested that the country was heading to a run-off between Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi. That’s the ultimate "out with the new, in with the old" scenario — a reprise of the same battle that has been going on in Egyptian politics for generations, and the recipe for a serious moral dilemma among Egypt’s self-styled revolutionaries.

But there’s a twist to this story. Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi is vying to replace Ahmed Shafiq in second place, according to the state-owned newspaper Ahram Online‘s preliminary results. Sabbahi gained steam in recent days as the only candidate who could credibly claim to represent leftist, non-Islamist voters while not being connected to the former regime. Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has won the support of many pro-revolution voters, is playing the role of spoiler — if a majority of his votes had gone to Sabbahi, he would have likely been able to edge out Shafiq.

Even though much about Egypt’s election remains unsettled, there are a few lessons we can take away from the preliminary results.

The center didn’t hold: Editors who wrote things like "[Amr] Moussa remains the front-runner in the presidential race" should have their pundit card revoked. The multiple polls that had the former foreign minister on top were wrong — really, really wrong. Moussa is currently winning roughly 10 percent of votes, or about 20 points less than the Ahram survey projected.

It all goes back to the most important day of the election: April 14, when Egypt’s election commission disqualified three of the most divisive front-runners: Mubarak-era intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Salafist Hazem Abo Ismail, and Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater. The last big-name candidates — Moussa and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – lacked their rivals’ sharp edges. In the lingo of American politics: They were uniters, not dividers.

But while the roster of candidates had changed, the Egyptian electorate — which had elevated Suleiman, Abo Ismail, and Shater to the top of the race — hadn’t. And the five weeks between the disqualifications and the election proved just enough time for the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral machine to kick into gear for Morsi, and for Shafiq to undermine Moussa’s support among Egyptians skeptical of Islamists and eager for a return to the stability of the Mubarak era.

Cold comfort for the United States and Israel: The one candidate who would not challenge the international partnerships established by the Mubarak regime is Ahmed Shafiq, who has said that the United States would be the first country he would visit if elected. But after a year of touting its rhetorical support for Egypt’s revolutionaries, it would require some serious political jujitsu on the part of President Barack Obama to embrace a Shafiq — particularly when the inevitable protests break out in Cairo.

If you think that’s bad, a President Morsi or President Sabbahi could prove catastrophic for the United States and Israel. The challenges presented by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, who has repeatedly called Israeli citizens "killers and vampires," are well known. But the presidency of Sabbahi, a long-time critic of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, would be no better: He has pledged to not sell gas to Israel, and only refers to it as the "Zionist entity" in his campaign platform.

If anything, it’s Sabbahi who’s more likely to fracture the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. This is the candidate, after all, who in 2005 supported al Qaeda’s attacks on American soldiers in Iraq. "When a weapon is pointed at the Americans [in Iraq], it is good," he said. "Any weapon that kills an American is good."

Islamist strongholds fell: Areas of Egypt that were supposed to be brimming with votes for Morsi and Aboul Fotouh defied pundits’ expectations. Salafists, for example, dominated the parliamentary elections in Alexandria — but were swept away by the secular leftist Sabbahi in the presidential race.

The same held true across the country. In Sharqiya governorate, which was supposedly Muslim Brotherhood territory, Shafiq came out with a 90,000-vote lead over Morsi. In Gharbiya governorate, another area dominated by the Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nour party in the parliamentary elections, Shafiq crushed Morsi by nearly 200,000 votes.

Everyone had expected the Islamist movements to lose some steam compared to the parliamentary elections, but it’s not quite clear how this came to pass. Some analysts have suggested that fraud may have played a role — fears that will certainly become more pronounced if Shafiq makes the run-off.