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Egyptians Bend Over Backwards for a President

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Being a non-smoker in Cairo is a tiring experience, never mind the inhalation of suffocating fumes from vehicle exhausts and hovering industrial smog or the annual mass combustion rice grains that sends a colossal billowing cloud over the city. Never mind the lack of concern and consideration for clean air in public spaces, even in the presence of infants and pregnant women. Never mind the fact that most locally manufactured tobacco products are notoriously packed with synthetic impurities and toxicants (as if tar and nicotine aren't enough!). Being a non-smoker is most endangering when a stranger -- say, a taxi driver -- stretches his arm to offer you that potent cigarette: To take or not to take. To take the cigarette is to violate one's own personal choice, subject one's body to a nefarious substance, douse one's clothes with a lingering unpleasant aroma, and submit one's will to external pressure. To refuse the cigarette is to turn down an act of hospitality and goodwill, break a social code, or imply that one is too classist to smoke with the "masses," or it may be seen as a sign of timidity, cowardice, and even emasculation. Quite a lot to process in a single decision, but nevertheless, it is a dilemma.

Egyptians are faced with such dilemmas on a ceaseless basis. Take the 6th of October City Bridge or Salah Salem Street during rush hour. Boycott Mobinil because of Sawiris' Twitter joke, Vodafone for trying to take credit for the revolution, or Emirati Etisalat for its aggressive monopolistic strategies of the Egyptian market. What to give up because one's salary is too miniscule to cover basic necessities? Food or medicine? Such are dilemmas, circumstances where two equally unfavorable and disadvantageous choices must be pondered where inaction is not an option. This is a philosophical conundrum that is often described as being on the "horns of a dilemma," where one is faced with the outcome of being impaled by one of the two bullhorns.

Today Egypt is facing an even more puzzling predicament: a presidential trilemma. With the official results from the election confirming the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy and Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, heading toward a runoff, many Egyptians are gripped with a deep-seated sense of sunken disbelief, anxiety, panic, dejection, and demoralization. Shafiq is now effectively viewed as the military's strongman, an apologist for Mubarak's regime, and an unrelenting bulwark of the "stability" camp. Revolutionaries see him as a Darth Vader character whom they hold at least indirectly responsible for the surreal murderous attack of Feb. 2, 2011 on Tahrir, known unflatteringly as the "Battle of the Camel."

Morsy is the uncharismatic, unimaginative, unappealing, and often unintelligible stebn (spare tire) candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose organization has effectively alienated a large proportion of the population. By using religious rhetoric to elbow out political opposition during all three elections -- constitutional amendments, parliamentary, and presidential -- they have appeared opportunistic and disingenuous. Perhaps more catastrophically, their confusingly unclear rhetoric on whether they will impose Sharia and their seemingly complicit silence during the killings of protesters in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud, the Cabinet protest, Port Said, and Abbaseya, all in just seven short months, have left many Egyptians concerned about their trustworthiness. Not to mention their monopolization of the Parliament and its most crucial legislative task ahead: the writing of the constitution.

There are some appeals of the results outstanding, and a court is still reviewing whether former regime figures should be prevented from participating in political life (which may disqualify Shafiq). If the results were to stay, Egyptians will go to the ballot boxes in two weeks to choose between Shafiq and Morsy -- a return to the old corrupt tyrannical regime or a complete transformation into a seemingly unfavorable scenario that would give the Brotherhood a complete trifecta of both parliamentary houses and the presidency. Throw in a few ingredients to raise both stakes and fears, such as sectarianism, and the bull's horns seem sharper than ever. With claims that many Christians may have voted for Shafiq, there's a growing sentiment that describes the Coptic minority as being anti-revolutionary, anti-Islamist, and pro-military council, effectively making them the target of everyone but the supporters of the old regime.

In the few days between voting and the announcements of the results, there was absolute silence from the Presidential Elections Commission, which governs the process. With no official results disclosed, speculation and panic mounting, many were suspicious that something was being cooked up behind the scenes. Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and Amr Moussa all took advantage of this circumstance to file official complaints with the commission, calling for suspension, cancellation, a recount or a freezing of the election in hope that their chances might be resuscitated. There was strong evidence suggesting fraud may have occurred, but the commission, which possesses absolute authority to refuse appeals or dismiss them outright without investigation, did precisely that.

In the meantime, it appears that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces -- the body that appointed the commission -- was weighing its options in the three candidates, including Sabbahi, who was only slightly lagging behind Shafiq in the official count.

Having butted heads with the Brotherhood ahead of this election, the council is less inclined to see Morsy go through compared with SCAF lackey Shafiq. Nevertheless, they almost certainly fear that a Shafiq win will start another wave of massive protests by the Islamists, secularists, revolutionaries, and other groups that would continue to prolong Egypt's "transition" and hurt their already tarnished image internationally.

What would a Morsy presidency look like? With SCAF at the helm of Egypt's foreign policy, delicately balancing relations with the country's two top benefactors, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, how would the Brotherhood in the driver's seat affect these relations?

The Brotherhood has always been a thorn in both Saudi Arabia and the United States' sides. But recently this seems to be changing as congenial relations with Washington have emerged, delegates sent back and forth, and promises of compliance made. On the regional front, with Saudi Arabia dangling a hefty US$3-billion grant that Egypt so desperately needs (especially because Fayza Abouelnaga, the international cooperation and planning minister, seems to be juggling the International Monetary Fund and World Bank), SCAF is inclined to do whatever the kingdom demands, even if it comes down to knocking the Brotherhood out. But luckily for Morsy and company, a recent diplomatic spat between Egypt and the Saudis saw a top delegation comprising highest-level Brothers such as People's Assembly Speaker Saad al-Katatny and prominent Islamists travel to Riyadh to genuflect and sing King Abdullah's praises. This may be just enough to ensure the two giants, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, turn a blind eye to a Morsy ascendency.

The Muslim Brotherhood challenged any calls for a recount or investigation of irregularity for fear that this may disadvantage its candidate by either dropping him from the second round or introducing a less polarizing figure than Shafiq who would pose a greater challenge for Morsy. Alternatively, if fraud was indeed widespread (presumably to give Shafiq an advantage), the Brotherhood should rather be ahead of the pack to confront it for fear that might repeat itself in the runoff, certainly to their disadvantage.

With both options for president presenting seemingly ominous outcomes for the electorate (not simply in their Shafiq and Morsy's persons but rather the configuration of political forces and ensuing realities), the hiatus and voting patterns have presented an unlikely possibility, a third wheel if, you will: Hamdeen Sabbahi. A surprise success in the election, the Nasserist candidate who was virtually unknown to most Egyptians just a few months ago was able to secure substantial numbers and win huge metropolitan areas like Cairo, Alexandria (a Salafi stronghold), Port Said, Suez and Giza. With a shabby, underfunded campaign and limited television spots during the run-up to the vote, Sabbahi seems to have soared precisely because of the lackluster image, overexposure, and polarizing rhetoric of other candidates. Either way, he has become an instant sensation once the results suggested Morsy and Shafiq came out on top. Since then, he has been a sought-after television guest, and Egyptians flocked to support him online and in rallies, all hoping he may be vindicated with admission into the second round.

But Sabbahi is not without his quirks. With the deep state digging into the very viscera of Egyptian politics, is there no suspicion in his unexplainable glowing success? Is it possible that he may in fact be the one groomed to arrive on a white horse to sweep a runoff against Morsy by unifying revolutionaries, the poor, the wealthy, the liberal and secular, the Islamists, the former regime, and everyone but the Brotherhood, all while not alarming SCAF?

It is no surprise that as people sat before their televisions lamenting the dilemma of a Shafiq-Morsy duel, Al-Nahar TV hosted Sabbahi in an interview that is no short of a breakthrough, akin to Wael Ghonim's epic interview with Mona El-Shazly on Dream TV in February 2011. The host, already calling him "Mr. President," could not stop basking in his glow as prerecorded interviews with prominent revolutionaries and residents of his town spoke about him in near-messianic terms. The interview even included emotionally charged moments with carefully chosen background music to add to the melodrama, and frequent camera dissolves from videos to close-ups of Sabbahi wiping away his tears. This was a moment made for television. Sabbahi may have already won the nation's heart and done so almost effortlessly. If he were a revolutionary, which he certainly seems to be, will he be able to confront SCAF on their violations? If he were a true Nasserist, would he see to it that the military establishment goes unchallenged, as did his inspiration? Arguably, this may be SCAF's best-case scenario. If they push Sabbahi back into the race, in one fell-swoop, they will have silenced the revolutionaries, liberals, Islamists, feloul, rich, poor, young and old all, thereby guaranteeing an end to public dissent and accordingly reducing scrutiny and allowing state institutions time and space to ossify. Could Sabbahi be another bullhorn likely to poke Egyptians?

Egyptians have known and understood the classic definition of dilemma from time immemorial, and have immortalized it in their use of the word "khazouk," meaning an instrument used to impale. Some say that when Egyptians came out to protest, they were choosing between the khazouk of Mubarak's police and the khazouk of uncertainty. They have since tasted khazouks from SCAF, the police, the government, the Brotherhood, the Salafis, the liberal parties, the disjointed youth revolutionaries, the economy, the religious institutions, and other Egyptians, as well. As people's dislike for both Shafiq and Morsy deepens, and with Sabbahi's popularity continuing to soar, many are praying for a miracle. Yet there is not good outcome. Instead, it is between bad and worse. All things equal, if the status quo continues, we should all take a collective deep breath and brace for the pain. And the next time you're offered a cigarette in a Cairo taxi, be sure to take it.

Originally published under the title "Egypt's Three-Horned Bull" in Egypt Independent.