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Runoff could take Egypt's voters on one of two very different paths

Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images

Egyptian election officials count ballots at a polling station in Cairo on Thursday after polls closed in the country's landmark presidential vote.


CAIRO - Hundreds of thousands of people throng the streets. The crowds furiously demand an end to nepotism and corruption and all the unemployment and injustice they create. The protesters rally behind a slogan that is also a deeply held conviction: Islam will make things better. Islam will bring justice.

That was Iran in 1979. The revolution was popular at the time. We all know how well it turned out. Iranian’s Islamic revolutionaries became ever more zealous and bellicose. They stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and held 66 Americans hostage for over a year. Iran has been a pariah ever since.

An Iranian friend told me today that when older Iranians in Tehran watch what’s happening in Egypt now, they say, “It looks like what we went through. The same thing is happening.”

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, banned for 80 years, appears to be in the lead in the country’s first ever free election. The group has staged mass rallies. The group’s slogan is "Islam is the solution." If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt, the changes could be as profound for this country and the region as they were for Iran.

This is where things stand now. On May 23-24, Egyptians voted. There were more than a dozen candidates, among them five with the potential of winning.

Voters lined up in Cairo to choose from five leading candidates: a socialist, two Islamists, and two with ties to former President Hosni Mubarak. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

As of a preliminary, still-unofficial counting, it appears there will be a runoff election between the two top contenders of the first vote. The runoff will take place June 16-17. The two candidates couldn’t be more different: former President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Mursi. Whoever wins will take the country down one of two very different paths.

Ahmed Shafiq

Ahmed Shafiq is promising to be a strongman. Critics call him a fascist. An Egyptian tonight told me he worried Shafiq will become another pharaoh. Shafiq is the antithesis of the Muslim Brotherhood. Shafiq has promised to restore law and order to Egypt within 24 hours of his election. He’s said that he’d crush any new protests if they are illegal, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to send in soldiers and police. He still openly expresses his admiration for Mubarak. On his campaign posters around Cairo, Shafiq’s slogan reads: "Actions, Not Words." Shafiq is not the man the revolutionaries who went to Tahrir Square more than a year ago had in mind when they demanded democracy. In fact, the revolutionaries –- especially the Facebook and Twitter generation -- hate Shafiq. But those revolutionaries aren’t setting the political agenda here anymore.

Mohammed Mursi

Mohammed Mursi is the Muslim Brotherhood’s man and has promised to purge Egypt of the old regime if he wins. After casting his ballot, Mursi told local television that he won’t allow “ANY members of the former criminal and corrupt regime to keep their jobs.” He stressed the word "any," shouting it and waving a finger. It’s a message directed at Shafiq and the Egyptian military. If Mursi has his way, Shafiq will be removed, maybe even put in jail; so will all the old cronies. That appeals to many Egyptians. A lot of Mubarak’s cronies are still hanging around in bogus jobs the former president created to appease and enrich his inner circle. The threat of a purge is also a warning to the military that it won’t be able to stage a coup against the Brotherhood, which is a distinct possibility.

This could go a couple of ways. Neither looks promising.

Egypt's next president to be an Islamist or Mubarak's former premier?

Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Former prime minister and presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq talks during a news conference in Cairo on May 14.

A Shafiq victory

If Shafiq wins, the Brotherhood will go berserk. It will claim fraud. It will protest. It will take to the streets. The old revolutionaries, the ones who didn’t want the Brotherhood or Shafiq, will go to the streets and try to re-occupy Tahrir Square. They’ll call for a new revolution, a do-over, hoping to get new candidates and new elections. Shafiq will crush the demonstrations. It will be violent. There will be deaths.

Shafiq won’t hesitate to use force. He’s already openly said he’ll smash dissent, and he’ll have a mandate from voters. How will the United States react? Will there be real condemnations? Egyptian revolutionaries, the sympathetic-looking, educated ones who speak English, will complain that they have a new dictator worse than Mubarak. Islamic cells will go underground, potentially carrying out bombings and other attacks that will delegitimize the “democratic revolutionaries.” But can Shafiq really win and restore order? Or will the revolutionaries and the Brotherhood be successful with another Tahrir revolution? If Shafiq wins, will Egyptians have defeated themselves by electing a man who is against the revolution they fought for? Egyptians will effectively have used their votes to elect someone many fear will be a strongman like Mubarak. Many Egyptians will believe the democratic revolution will have failed if Shafiq is the new president.

Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Presidential candidate Mohammed Mursi arrives at a polling station to cast his vote in Al-Sharqya, northeast of Cairo, on Wednesday.

A Mursi victory

If Mursi and the Brotherhood win, the army will go on the defensive. Senior officers will fight against being purged from their jobs. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, Egyptian women and Christians will suffer.

The Muslim Brotherhood is at its heart a salafist group, a purist fundamentalist movement focused on imposing Islamic laws and morals. In the current political discourse, there has been a distinction drawn between salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The difference isn’t as wide as it seems. Salafists are fundamentalists who dedicate their lives to religious preaching, converting non-believers and defending the strict moral codes of Islamic law. Salafists are generally poor, sometimes impoverished, choosing the purity of poverty over the temptation and ungodliness of wealth. Salafists spend many nights sleeping on hard mosque floors. They generally do not organize politically. They are like medieval Christian hermits, dedicated solely to the path of God. The Brotherhood started out as a salafist movement. The group’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, began his career by writing letters, some of them threatening, warning fellow Egyptians to give up immoral practices.

But the Brotherhood, unlike the ascetic salafists, embraces politics and does it well. The Brotherhood is practical. It has wealthy donors. The Brotherhood believes the best way to implement Islamic law is to win power by gradually taking control of state institutions.

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If Mursi becomes president, it will be disastrous for Egyptian women. Some will pay in blood. Female circumcision –- also known as female genital mutilation –- has long been practiced in Egypt. The process involves cutting out part, or all, of a girl’s clitoris when she starts to show signs of sexual maturity. In the 1990s as many as 97 percent of young Egyptian women underwent the practice. Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is most often carried out by barbers or midwives using a straight razor, or even more commonly, with the snip of scissors. Unlike male circumcision, FGM isn’t primarily used to demarcate community affiliation or for its purported health benefits. FGM is about control. In popular Egyptian and regional culture, women are seen as weak, easy victims to temptation in the same way Eve couldn’t resist that shiny apple in the Garden of Eden. FGM follows the same principle. The clitoris, as a center of sexual pleasure, is seen here as a source of temptation. If a woman rides a donkey, which many rural woman do, or bathes, her clitoris might be stimulated. Like Eve, she’d lose control of herself and make bad decisions. Society would collapse. Paradise lost. Therefore for everyone’s good, including her own, the woman’s clitoris is snipped out.  The practice was banned under Mubarak. His wife was a major advocate of the ban, which had a major impact. FGM still takes place in Egypt but no longer in public hospitals. FGM percentages dropped over a third after the 2008 ban. As part of its election campaign, the Brotherhood said it wants to reverse the ban on FGM. It also wants to lower the legal marriage age for women to 14 and make it much more difficult for a woman to divorce her husband or keep custody of her children.

Many Christians fear their future won’t be much brighter than women’s under the Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood has gone to great lengths to say it will not persecute Christians, few believe it. Christians worry they’ll be forced to pay a tax called jiziya, an ancient form of Islamic protection money that Christians paid to Islamic rulers in exchange for safety and community rights. Several Christians have told me they will leave Egypt if the Brotherhood wins. Others say they will stay and fight. Egypt has a large Christian community –- 10 million to 12 million members now –- which has had a presence in this country since the Roman Empire.

NBC's Richard Engel spoke with former President Jimmy Carter about Egypt's elections and the country's future. The Carter Center has been in Egypt monitoring the presidential elections.

Possible coup?

If the Brotherhood wins, the Egyptian army will probably consider a coup. A coup would go against every democratic principle that Egyptians fought to achieve in last year’s revolution, but, then again, so would electing Shafiq. A coup would be condemned internationally, but many foreign governments might secretly welcome it. The possibility of a coup could explain why Mursi went to such lengths to say he’d purge the entire Egyptian power structure if elected. Omar Suliman, President Mubarak’s old intelligence chief, who knows a thing or two about the military’s thinking, said he expects there would be a coup if the Brotherhood wins power. A coup, if it happens at all, might not take place right away. The military might wait until the Brotherhood alienates moderate Egyptians, so that they’d welcome a military intervention. The longer the military waits, however, the harder it will be to carry out a coup, because the army won’t be able to fight off purges from a democratically elected government forever.

In Egypt's election, politics is a new family affair

Constitutional battle

The military does, however, have one trump card. There is currently no Egyptian constitution. It was dismantled during the revolution against Mubarak and still has to be rewritten. Without a constitution, the new president’s powers will be unclear. If the Brotherhood wins, its supporters –- who now have the overwhelming majority in parliament -- will try to write and pass a new constitution as soon as possible. Control over the constitutional process will become critically important in the coming months.

In the end there are two very distinct scenarios. If Shafiq wins, there will be protests, which he will try to suppress. There will be violence. Where the violence goes is hard to predict. If Mursi wins, the Brotherhood will gradually impose Islamic law, try to fight off a military coup by purging the military and quickly write a constitution. Women and Christians will suffer.

Either way, the next few months in this country are critical, with as much at stake for Egypt as there was for Iran in 1979. Change is coming, but it remains unclear which way Egypt and the Middle East will go.

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