CAIRO- An arson attack on the headquarters of one of the two candidates in Egypt’s presidential election has marred campaigning for the second round in a vote that has polarised the nation with the choice of an Islamist or Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister.
Protesters set fire to storage rooms and smashed computers late on Monday at the campaign headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, a 70-year-old former air force chief and Mubarak official, who was confirmed as a run-off candidate after the first round vote.
His rival is Mohamed Mursi, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist group which controls the biggest bloc in parliament after an earlier election. The deciding presidential vote is on June 16 and 17.
Mursi, 60, drew support from a disciplined group of backers of the Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak, and Shafiq attracted Egyptians who want a strongman to restore law, order and prosperity after 15 months of turmoil since Mubarak’s ouster.
Neither won more than a quarter of votes cast in the first round, leaving an agonising choice for a sizeable portion of the electorate who backed more centrist candidates and do not want a conservative Islamist or an ex-military officer at the helm.
Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets on Monday night in protest after the results of the first round were confirmed by the election committee. Some held up posters of Mursi with a cross over his face. But most were chanting against Shafiq.
Dozens then marched from the protests around Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands played out a drama that toppled Mubarak, to Shafiq’s headquarters in the upscale Cairo district of Dokki.
“They seemed to know what they were after and they went directly to the storage rooms and set them on fire using petrol bombs,” said Ahmed Abdel Ghani, 30, a member of Shafiq’s campaign, surveying a scene of unusable, charred campaign flyers and leaflets scattered on the ground.
The main villa escaped the flames but protesters smashed laptops and computers inside, he said. Daubed on the wall outside the villa were the words: “No to Shafiq, no to feloul,” an Arabic word referring to “remnants” of Mubarak’s era.
Shafiq has made no secret of his admiration for Mubarak, describing him as a role model after his own father. Protesters threw stones and shoes at him when he voted in Cairo last week.
“We condemn the attack but we still don’t know who is behind it and will wait for investigations. But we are continuing our work and path and hopefully all will end well,” said one official in the campaign, who asked not to be named.
The flare-up was the latest in an already messy and often bloody transition to democracy since generals took over from Mubarak after a popular uprising forced him out on February 11, 2011. The army has pledged to hand over power by July 1.
Even before the first-round vote, revolutionaries who led the demonstrations that brought down Mubarak had promised to hit the streets if Shafiq progressed in the vote to become president of the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Yet any violence could help Shafiq’s cause as his strongest card in the race is his promise swiftly to restore law and order, which collapsed after Mubarak’s downfall.
Many Egyptians were happy to see the back of Mubarak, yet are now desperate for stability to revive the shattered economy. Shafiq is seen as having the army backing to achieve that.
Both Shafiq and the Brotherhood are now trying to rally support from more centrist voters in the second round. But youth leaders of the uprising fear they would be surrendering their revolution by voting for Mursi or Shafiq and liberals are also deeply uncomfortable with the available candidates.
Liberal and other political groups have often criticised the Brotherhood for being slow to join the anti-Mubarak revolt, acquiescing too quickly to the ruling generals and seeking to dominate the political scene after their parliamentary success.
Mursi’s supporters believe Mursi and the Brotherhood, which has a social network with grass-roots support across Egypt, are the best hope for reforming a corrupt state.
“Protests are expected. Not everyone will be satisfied with the result, some will object to it but we hope that the people’s choice will be with the revolution,” said Fareed Ismail, a senior figure in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
“The situation in Egypt is in a critical and dangerous phase. We must work together so that the revolution isn’t lost,” he told Reuters.
The Brotherhood denied any role in the attack on Shafiq’s headquarters. Other candidates who lost in the first round also condemned the violence.
Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist candidate who came third in the race and now being courted by the Brotherhood, said in a statement it was the “right of the people to express their opinion provided demonstrations were peaceful”.
A Brotherhood source, who asked not to be named, said the Islamist group had prepared a menu of options to tempt rival groups and politicians to its side, including backers of first-round loser and ex-Brotherhood member Abdol Moneim Abol Fotouh.
Until now, fourth-placed Abol Fotouh has called for his supporters to “stand united against the symbols of corruption and oppression” – a reference to Shafiq – but has not explicitly said he would back Mursi.
Like Sabahy, fifth-placed former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, once a favourite, has not backed either candidate.
The ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslim Al-Nour party, which controls the second biggest bloc in parliament and had backed Abol Fotouh, has thrown its weight behind Mursi.
The Brotherhood source said the group has offered: creating a five-member advisory council to advise the president; assigning the posts of prime minister or vice-president to Abol Fotouh and Sabahy; distributing cabinet posts to other parties; and offering compromises on planned laws and on an assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution.
Four candidates complained about the vote conduct but the election committee dismissed all the complaints.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he was broadly confident about the election process although Carter Center monitors highlighted several irregularities, notably lack of access in the final aggregation of national results.