Just days before the final round of Egypt’s presidential election, religion has become a deciding factor for many voters, who face a stark choice between a conservative Islamist and a secular former military officer.

The Muslim Brotherhood is presenting its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as a man of the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak and is accusing Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak, of trying to return Egypt to the old and repressive order.

But Shafiq, like Mubarak a former combat pilot, is hitting back hard, using near-daily news conferences and interviews to play on some Egyptians’ fears of the rising power of Islamists. Shafiq accuses the Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution, and he has been painting a grim picture of what he says Egypt would become under the Brotherhood’s leadership — an ultraconservative Islamist state akin to Saudi Arabia, hostile to moderate Egyptian Muslims, Coptic Christians and women.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is a sectarian trend,” Shafiq said last week on local channel CBC. “The Brotherhood is intimidating the Copts not to vote in the runoff. They are threatening to ruin their shops and businesses.”

That rhetoric is garnering support across Egyptian society, from the working class to the political elite.

Some are angry that the Brotherhood, which was repressed under Mubarak, has failed to live up to its post-revolution promises — first, not to field candidates for more than a third of the seats in Egypt’s new parliament, and then not to put forward a presidential candidate. Although the group had insisted that it did not want to rule the country, its dominant role in parliament and Morsi’s place as one of two finalists for the presidential vote this weekend now make that a very real possibility.

Shafiq’s message has resonated with voters who fear that the Brotherhood would roll back protections for women, such as the right to divorce and a legal marriage age of 18. Some also worry that a Brotherhood president would work in the interests of the Islamist group’s leadership and not the country as a whole.

Threat to boycott vote

Some liberals and leftists — including most members of Egypt’s leftist Social Democratic Party, which has one of the largest blocs of secular legislators in parliament — are threatening to boycott the vote as a form of protest against the two candidates. But others, including the leading liberal party, the Democratic Front Party, are supporting Shafiq.

“There is a small percentage of our members who will vote for Shafiq,” Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, who leads the Social Democratic Party, said in an interview. “The Muslim Brotherhood is totally unacceptable to us. If I had to vote, I would vote secular. The Brotherhood could destroy the future of Egypt.”

Shafiq also won an endorsement from a daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, who led Egypt’s 1952 revolution and military coup. Hoda Abdel Nasser said her decision was rooted in fear of the Islamists’ rise. “The Islamist tendency does not leave power once it reaches it,” she said in an interview, comparing a Brotherhood victory in Egypt to 1979 Iran, where the revolution put ayatollahs in power. Under Shafiq, there would be “freedom of worship, freedom of thought, freedom of lifestyle,” she said.

Ahmed Lotfy, a supermarket owner in downtown Cairo, said he voted for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in parliamentary elections. But on Friday, he hung a large poster of Shafiq — with the slogan “Action not words” — inside his store.

“I’ll vote for Shafiq,” he said. “He’s a statesman, and the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t keep its promises.”

Nearby, Seham Rashad, a 32-year-old housewife dressed in skinny jeans and a veil, pointed to a torn poster of Shafiq. “He’s the only one who can save the country,” she said. “I’m a Muslim but I fear the rise of Islamists. They will turn us into Afghanistan.”

Ties to the past

Hoping to capture a wide swath of Islamist votes, from moderate to puritanical, Morsi voiced conservative views before the first round of presidential voting last month. He promised to use the Koran, the Islamic holy book, as Egypt’s constitution and drew support from ultraconservative clerics.

But since making it to the second round, Morsi’s campaign has moderated as he tries to capture the revolutionary and liberal vote. If elected, he said that he would not enforce an Islamic dress code and has promised to be a leader for all of Egypt, not just Islamists or the Brotherhood. In the past few days, banners of Morsi have appeared throughout the capital with a photo of both uncovered and veiled Egyptian women standing alongside men.

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s leadership has responded to Shafiq’s attacks by accusing him of slandering the group to hide his blemished record. Hoping to win the votes of those who supported
the revolution, the Brotherhood has stressed Shafiq’s ties to the past, pointing out that he called Mubarak his role model, was prime minister when unarmed protesters were killed by Mubarak’s security forces, and threatened last month to “neutralize” the Islamists.

“Ahmed Shafiq is from the old regime, and he was one of the symbols of the old regime with all its corruption,” said Mahmoud Hussein, secretary general of the Brotherhood. “He’s speaking in the same narrative of the old regime.”

Mubarak often pointed to the Brotherhood as a threatening alternative to his autocratic but secular rule, using it to justify his heavy-handed state security apparatus when Western nations criticized his human rights record.

Hussein said the Brotherhood does not want an Islamic caliphate but a unified, modern Egyptian state that draws on Islam to govern.

“All these lies can’t work with Egyptians now,” Hussein said. “Voters would never select him unless there is fraud.”

But another prominent Brotherhood member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, acknowledged that Shafiq’s tactic may work.

He has the backing of prominent members of Mubarak’s now-banned political party, who see the vote as “life and death,” the official said. Mubarak also represents stability for some voters after 16 months of uncertainty and episodic violence, and revolutionary forces are divided between boycotting the election and backing Morsi, he said.

“Ahmed Shafiq is Mubarak’s loyal student. He was close to him. It’s a painful surprise,” he said. “The Brotherhood is mistaken if they think Shafiq is not a threat.”

Special correspondent Haitham Mohamed contributed to this report.