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Can voters force candidates to compromise in Egypt run-off?

Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

The upcoming election showdown between Islamist Muslim Brotherhood stalwart Mohammed Morsi (L) and former Mubarak-era minister and military loyalist Ahmed Shafiq has been described as a "worst-case scenario" by analysts across the political spectrum. Is that a correct assessment?


CAIRO -- Former Mubarak-era minister and military loyalist Ahmed Shafiq and Islamist candidate and Muslim Brotherhood stalwart Mohammed Morsi will run against each other in Egypt’s upcoming presidential run-off election, officials announced on Monday.

Out of a field of five serious contenders who ranged from moderates to Islamists to secularists, the showdown between these two has already been described as a “worst-case scenario” by analysts across the political spectrum.

Some analysts are already calling for voters to boycott the run-off elections scheduled for the middle of June, the argument being that by withholding their vote Egyptians can delegitimize the process that led to this outcome. Also, the argument goes, by boycotting the vote a citizen can deny the winning candidate a strong mandate to govern.

Other commentators are simply reducing the run-off vote to a choice between security, which is Shafiq’s mantra, and the imposition of Islamic law, Morsi’s pledge.  

So is Egypt facing a depressing return to the Mubarak-era or a drastic plunge into the sharia law-era?

Not necessarily either of these scenarios. 

The results of the election, and the upcoming run-off, can be interpreted much less pessimistically.  Instead of the bleak assessments being peddled now, Egypt may instead be entering an era where compromise, coalition-building and power-sharing are part of the political lexicon.

Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images

A man demonstrating in Cairo's Tahrir square on May 29. His sign reads: "The revolution continues... No to candidates from the old regime...No to the Muslim Brotherhood....STOP".

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

There are a few facts that need to be considered when analyzing the recent vote.

Fact one: The majority of voters who went to the polls did not want Morsi or Shafiq to be president. The figures indicate Morsi garnered 24.4 percent and Shafiq 23.3 percent. The rest of the candidates split the remaining 52.3 percent of the vote.

Simply put, more people wanted someone else to be president than they wanted either one of these two candidates.

Fact two: By garnering almost as many votes as the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Shafiq and the grassroots organization he built and mobilized over a few months has become a major cause of concern for the long-standing political force. 

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

Fact three: A majority of Egyptians have grown weary of Islamist politicians in an very short period of time.  In fact, the majority voted for either staunchly secular candidates, Shafiq, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, or Aboul Fotoh, a moderate Islamist who promised not to mix religion and politics and also enjoyed the support of idealist secular youth.

In essence, this election has proved that while the Muslim Brotherhood may be the dominant force on Egypt’s streets, that doesn’t mean they are the most popular political force.

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.

While they are still considered the best-organized and funded political organization in Egypt, the recent results probably rattled the Muslim Brotherhood’s cage while helping them understand that they need coalitions too. In other words, the election results prove that there are forces capable of competing against the Muslim Brotherhood.

For 16 months, a debate has raged over the country’s political future.  Should it be a presidential or parliamentary system? Should it be an Islamist state? Secular? Capitalist? Socialist? The candidates tried to define themselves assuming these were the metrics the voters used.

But the results of the first round of voting showed that Egyptians en masse have yet to answer a central question about the country’s future: Do they accept change and the uncertainty and chaos it brings, or will they choose stability and the stagnation it breeds?

For the past year and four months, everything that has unfolded in this country can be seen through this prism – a choice between change or stability.

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

From deadly street protests, to military trials, to parliamentary elections -- every time Egypt’s revolutionary movements have tried to shove the country towards radical change, forces just as eager to slow the pace of change have pushed it back from the edge.

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

So, as people call for change, just as many have overcome their apathy and said "not so fast."

When the change appears to lean in favor of the more powerful Islamist parties, it becomes more palpable for many to slow change down.

And with around 48 percent of voters now behind Morsi or Shafiq, 52 percent are now up for grabs. So what is clear is that for Morsi or Shafiq to win the presidency, they will have to win the hearts and minds of the remaining voters.  

Now the questions is – what can the two candidates do to secure this group’s support?

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

For Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, the message from the electorate is clear: The Brotherhood is beatable, Egyptians are tired of the Islamists’ meteoric power grab, and want to see the MB reach across the political divide and move to the center.  Morsi’s Islamist base of support is not enough to win the elections so he must moderate his party’s policies to win the support of cautious and skeptical revolutionaries, many of whom are liberal and likely secular, but nonetheless pro-revolutionary and pro-change.

In contrast, Mubarak’s last prime minister Shafiq, has tapped into a core of the population who wants stability and is more afraid of Islamist politicians than of a return to Mubarak-era policies and practices.

And Shafiq can’t win the Presidency without recognizing that the new balance of power depends on the young, who are overwhelmingly pro-revolutionary, either as Islamists or secularists.

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Shafiq played the fear of uncertainty card well in the first round, but he will have to show voters that he can deliver reforms, change and democracy as well as security and stability. In other words, Shafiq’s core of staunchly secularist and anti-change, pro-stability loyalists are not enough to win the final round of elections.

So the core supporters of these two camps are not enough to win them either an all-out majority, which leaves a central question: Which candidate can overcome his shortcomings better?

Will Shafiq show undecided voters that he will bring reforms, security and democracy? Can Morsi convince voters that the Muslim Brotherhood will commit to a civil secular pluralistic state?

The candidates will have a month to sell themselves to the voters -- and the voters will have a month to decide just how they envision Egypt’s revolution playing out.

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