CAIRO — Last week, Egyptian voters delivered a stunning setback to the Islamist candidate for president, who had anticipated an electoral triumph so great that it would catapult his movement to power throughout the Middle East.
True, Mohammed Morsi, the standard-bearer of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, won the most votes out of a field of 13 in Egypt’s first free presidential elections. But, despite the Brotherhood’s organizational talents, Morsi collected only around a quarter of the votes and barely bested two secular candidates who came in close behind him. He will face one of them in a runoff on June 16 and 17.
Even though religion is an integral part of Egyptian life, voters pushed back against an Islamist party that wanted to control all of Egypt’s institutions.
In recent weeks, some Brotherhood leaders had expressed the hope that they, along with other branches of their 82-year-old movement, could re-establish the Muslim caliphate that disappeared after the end of the Ottoman Empire.
The bulk of Egyptian voters — who face rampant unemployment, inflation, and street crime — made clear that they had more practical concerns on their mind.
It is still possible that Morsi will win the runoff, for complex reasons I’ll explain in a minute. But first, you need to understand the sophistication and intelligence that newbie Egyptian democrats displayed at the polls.
Last fall, in parliamentary elections, 47 percent of the seats went to the Brotherhood party and about 25 percent went to ultraconservative Muslim Salafist parties; many Egyptians believed that Islamist parties would be honest, incorruptible, and concerned about the public’s welfare.
But when I went around last week to working-class districts of Cairo, such as Imbaba and Saida Zeinab, which had voted heavily for Brotherhood candidates for parliament, nearly all the people I met said they wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Two themes were repeated over and over as reasons to reject the Islamists. Some voters were angry at the Brotherhood for breaking its pledge not to run a candidate for president. “If one group controls everything, the parliament and president, then we go back to the old way like (deposed President Hosni) Mubarak,” said house painter Shaaban Abdullah. “We need balance.”
Even more common was the complaint of carpenter Saad Mohammed, who said, “We gave them their chance, but they just talk and don’t do anything. We hoped for security and jobs. This country is in chaos and it needs someone with a strong hand in control.”
This yen for a strong hand helps explain the second-place finish of Ahmed Shafiq (although the count was still incomplete at this writing). A former military man who was the last prime minister under Mubarak, he was backed by the army, which could turn out the vote from its members and their families. And he got strong support from Coptic Christians, who fear they will suffer from a government under Brotherhood control.
But those Egyptians who rejected both the Islamists and any candidate linked to Mubarak turned to three other candidates who clustered behind Morsi and Shafiq. Many endorsed Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist and nationalist, who was considered the closest to the Tahrir Square revolt. He nearly overtook Shafiq in a late surge. Some turned to a more moderate and independent Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who had been ousted from the Brotherhood. Others voted for an ex-foreign minister under Mubarak, Amr Moussa, who was considered less tainted than Shafiq.
The bottom line: The vast bulk of voters, religious or not, rejected Morsi, and the Brotherhood was seen as overly domineering, dishonest, or too preoccupied with imposing new restrictions on women — rather than focusing on the economy. The airwaves were filled with interviews with former senior Brotherhood members who had quit because they thought the organization was too undemocratic, with a tight hierarchy loyal to the Brotherhood’s leader, known as the supreme guide.
Unfortunately, a second round that pits Morsi against Shafiq will be viewed as a battle between the Islamists and the remnants of the Mubarak era, the so-called faloul. That will repel millions of Egyptians who wanted neither remnants nor Islamists. Many may choose not to vote — and some may return to Tahrir Square in protest. If the non-Islamists abandon the ballot, this could enable Morsi to win.
Still, it is important to consider the message of this election: The Muslim Brotherhood is not invincible, despite its triumphalism. Had voters been offered one strong candidate who was neither faloul nor Islamist, rather than several, that candidate would have won. This is a warning that the Brotherhood can ignore only at its peril.
Rather than go back to the streets, the Tahrir Square revolutionaries would be better off demanding that the remaining candidates be more inclusive, and developing one strong party for the future. If they did so, they would start with this clear advantage:
Egyptians have shown they won’t tolerate an Islamist party that wants to treat Egypt as if it were Iran.
• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.