Two weeks ago, the two candidates widely acknowledged as Egypt’s presidential front-runners – the Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh and ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa – faced off in the country’s first-ever televised debate.

Now, with the majority of votes counted in the election’s first round, neither candidate remains relevant. Voters instead gave pole positions to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, with former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq just behind and the Nasserite socialist Hamadeen Sabahi in third. Abol Fotouh and Moussa came in fourth and fifth, respectively.

“Abol Fotouh was never more than a ‘flavor of the month,’” said Kurt Werthmuller, an Egypt expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“Moussa’s campaign has foolishly coasted on name recognition: ‘Why mobilize voters when everyone knows who I am?’” Official results will be released on Tuesday, but barring any further surprises, the June 16- 17 second-round ballot will pit Mursi against Shafiq.

“This will make for a deeply divisive period of runoff rhetoric, although it will be a difficult choice only for the small circle of Tahrir revolutionaries,” Werthmuller said. “Most Egyptians are likely to perceive the runoff as a straightforward choice of complete dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood or a return to safe streets and a certain degree of normalcy.”

“I, for one, cannot predict which of these two options will prove more persuasive,” he added.

The stout Mursi is every pound the Brotherhood insider. A four-decade member of the movement, he has in recent weeks strayed from the Brothers’ initial post-revolutionary attempts to depict themselves as “moderate” Islamists committed to civil, non-religious government.
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In recent campaign rallies, Mursi’s message has increasingly included references to the Koran, God, Muhammad and – when he feels the crowd is receptive – promises to implement Islamic law.

“It was for the sake of the Islamic Shari’a that men were... thrown into prison. Their blood and existence rests on our shoulders now,” he said during one recent rally. “We will work together to realize their dream of implementing Shari’a.”

Mursi, 60, has even pledged to work for the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh” imprisoned in the United States since the 1990s for plotting attacks in New York.

Abdel-Rahman is the spiritual leader of Gama’a al-Islamiya, a formerly banned extremist group that was behind the 1981 assassination of president Anwar Sadat and the 1997 massacre of 62 tourists in Luxor. The group claims to have renounced violence and now holds 13 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Last month, Mursi sat impassively at a Cairo stadium rally on his behalf as a radical preacher pledged to create a new Islamic caliphate based in Jerusalem, and an MC led the crowd in chants of “Banish the sleep from the eyes of the Jews; come on, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas!” The candidate has called for the 1979 peace treaty with Israel to undergo “revisions,” but has not specified what exactly those changes would entail.

Shafiq, by contrast, is viewed by many Egyptians as Hosni Mubarak 2.0. Israeli policy-makers too view the ex-air force chief as a pragmatist keen to continue the ousted president’s alliance with Washington and its strategic partnership with Jerusalem.

The 70-year-old has impeccable anti-Islamist credentials, and has even said that as president, he would be willing to visit the Jewish state “if it served Egypt’s interests.”

“A Mursi presidency would probably work with parliament to dismantle the peace treaty through a gradual, piecemeal process,” Werthmuller said. “Shafiq unquestionably holds the more favorable stance toward the treaty, having promised to maintain it for the good of Egypt’s security and stability.”

Raphael Israeli, a Middle East specialist and professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said his first reaction to receiving the Egyptian election results was “I told you so.”

“When the treaty with Egypt was drafted, I said we had made peace with Sadat, but not with Egypt. People called me a warmonger and a pessimist,” Israeli said. “Today, everyone sees, unfortunately, that it’s true.”

Israel’s only hope, he said, is Shafiq – a contender many voters may choose not out of affection, but out of fear of the potential alternative: “There are many Egyptians who, much more than they want Shafiq, simply fear the Brotherhood."

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