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PRESIDENTIAL RACE: The good performance of two candidates is adding to the uncertainty of the outcome, write Liam Stack and David D. Kirkpatrick
SIGNS of a late surge in popularity by two dark-horse candidates in Egypt's first competitive presidential race are adding new suspense about the outcome of the initial round of voting set to begin tomorrow.
Polls conducted by the military-led interim government have shown growing support for Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general who was the last prime minister appointed by Hosni Mubarak before his ouster.
The results have drawn warnings from members of parliament that the military might be trying to tip the results in Shafik's favour and have set off a series of clashes at his campaign events between his supporters and opponents. But the signs of his new popularity have also given rise to speculation that his law-and-order message may resonate with voters.
At the same time, Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist and Arab nationalist in the tradition of Gamal Abdel Nasser, earned a surprising second-place finish in the early returns of Egyptians voting abroad, disclosed on Friday night. Those results, in turn, suggest that his secular brand of populism may be catching on among voters looking for an alternative to the previous front-runners, who are either Islamists or former Mubarak officials.
The unexpected attention to their campaigns is raising new doubts about the dynamics of the race. Most analysts and polls have suggested that the clear front-runners are Amr Moussa, a former diplomat, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a self-described liberal Islamist who won the overseas voting with about 12,000 votes. But the few available polls proved highly unreliable before the parliamentary voting a few months ago, so the outcome remains impossible to anticipate.
If no candidate wins a majority in the first round then the top two candidates will face each other in a run-off next month.
A second-place finish by either Shafik or Sabahi -- a possibility still considered a longshot -- could put them in reach of the presidency.
With a convention to write a new constitution deadlocked, whoever becomes president will take on an undefined job that could have extraordinary power to shape Egypt's future, including its next charter.
Shafik, 70, was forced out as prime minister after just five weeks when protesters demanded his ouster. In March, Parliament passed a law aimed, unsuccessfully, at barring him from running for president, a challenge he survived through an appeal to the Supreme Court.
He has spent the past several weeks of his campaign crisscrossing Egypt, but it has not always gone smoothly. An anti-Shafik news conference in Cairo was attacked by some of his supporters on Saturday, and over the past several days violence has flared at rural campaign events.
Shafik is the only former military man running for president in a country that has never had a civilian leader. Without the backing of a political party, he campaigns as a bulwark against both rising crime and the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates Parliament. But for many, he is inextricably linked to Mubarak, who elevated him to prime minister from the obscure post of civil aviation minister during the 18-day uprising.
In a television appearance, Shafik mockingly offered to reward protesters in Tahrir Square with candy if they would just go home.
"There was a revolution against him, and they threw him out the door," said Karim Hesham, 32, a cafe worker who does not plan to vote for Shafik. "Now he is trying to climb back in through the window. That man will never be president of the republic."
But Shafik appears to have gained support from those who benefited from the Mubarak years, a time they see as more prosperous and less Islamist.
"Our supporters are people who do not want to see Egypt turn into Afghanistan or Iran," said Ahmed Sarhan, the campaign spokesman. "People who don't want their lifestyle to change, people who respect religion but do not want to be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood."
Sabahi, 58, spent time in both Parliament and prison, jailed for his opposition to the Mubarak government and his advocacy of the rights of farmers and workers. He was an early activist in the Kefaya movement, which pioneered the kind of street protests that eventually ended Mubarak's rule.
A former poet who gave up writing for politics, Sabahi has recently attracted the support of a large number of artists and intellectuals, including the novelist and critic Alaa Aswany.
"The dream poets want, you have to engage in a very difficult swamp to achieve it in reality," Sabahi said.
"To achieve my poetic dream -- on the field and not in text -- I have to struggle in politics."
He has vowed to increase social welfare payments for the poor, the minimum wage and farm subsidies, promises he plans to pay for by raising the taxes of rich Egyptians.
Among other things, he proposes a "Tahrir tax", named after the central square at the centre of the Egyptian uprising, that would require every Egyptian with more than about US$900,000 (RM2.8 million) to pay 10 per cent of their net worth in one lump sum.
Sabahi, more than any of the Islamists, is also the candidate most hostile to Israel and the West. He often says ambiguously that he does not object to the text of Egypt's Camp David treaty with Israel, but that he wants to abolish "the spirit" of the agreement, and suggests that Egypt should prepare for a possible war with its neighbour.
"I will support all forms of armed resistance" against Israel, Sabahi said, "whether it comes from Palestine's land, from Lebanon's land or from any other land." NYT