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Eric Margolis Headshot

Time Bomb on the Nile

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The second, decisive round of Egypt's presidential election will be held June 16 and 17. If former general and Mubarak regime stalwart Ahmad Shafiq somehow wins, it's almost certain the vote was manipulated.

A huge popular explosion in Egypt will very likely ensue. Egyptians are already furious their first democratic election of a president was distorted by the state election commission, a tool of the military junta now ruling Egypt. The commission vetoed many popular and capable candidates from the election for spurious reasons, corrupting the election in advance. The vote was set up to split the votes of Islamists between numerous candidates.

In the end, two candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and former Maj. General Ahmad Shafiq, were left facing one another in the runoff vote.

I observed Egypt's parliamentary vote that began at the end of 2011 and ended in early 2012. This vote was fair, open and laudably democratic. Its outcome was only a surprise to the western media, which routinely misunderstands or misreports the Mideast. The Islamists -- the Brotherhood and orthodox Salafist al-Nur Party -- won a landslide with 66% of the popular vote.

In other words, two of three Egyptians voted for parties advocating government under Islamic principles. Horrified, Egypt's military, backed and financed by western powers and some conservative Arab allies, set about trying to split the Islamists, reinvigorating the Mubarak regime, and making sure the presidential election would be an uphill struggle for the Islamists.

The first round of the presidential election was clearly tainted by vote rigging, a specialty of the old Mubarak regime. The military's candidate, Shafiq, won easily in districts that had given landslide victories to the Islamists.

The Islamists were to blame for some of this. They failed to unite, splitting the vote. They failed to convince deeply worried Coptic Christians, who comprise 10% of Egypt's population, that Islamists would not be a threat to Christianity or enforce draconian Salafist practices. They did not sufficiently emphasize their commitment to democracy or youth issues.

Another key factor that I witnessed across Egypt was the military junta's ploy of withdrawing police from the streets and actually encouraging a crime wave to develop in a nation that was one of the world's most crime-free societies in spite of its grinding poverty. Many Egyptians were frightened by the rising crime wave into supporting Shafiq and his military backers who vowed to crush crime with an iron first.

Even so, it strains comprehension that Shafiq is now running neck-and-neck with Islamist Morsi. There is even talk that if Shafiq wins, he will name the hated former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as prime minister. A Shafiq victory would mean a return to absolute Mubarakism, without Mubarak.

Egypt did not stage its revolution so that Mubarakist autocracy and the fierce police state that kept it in power could return. So that the circles of corrupt businessmen and cronies around Mubarak could resume their plundering of the economy. Or so that Egypt could remain under the thumb of the United States and, indirectly, Israel. But that's what could happen.

In fact, a big question is how Egypt's Islamist-nationalists could get by without some $1.3 billion in US annual military and economic aid.

Morsi should vow to appoint popular Nasserist Hamdin Sabahi as his prime minister and name Copts to senior positions. He will have to quickly seek economic aid from the EU -- at a time when it is awash with troubles.

Washington is deeply alarmed the Brotherhood may abrogate the hated, one-sided 1979 Camp David treaty with Israel. Most Egyptians rightly see the treaty as void because Israel violated one of its most important provisions: that Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and permit creation of a Palestinian state. But in a US election year in which pro-Israel forces dominate the Republican Party, Egypt's nationalists and Islamist are well advised caution.

It's no coincidence young Egyptians dismiss the Brotherhood, "your grandfather's party." Its conservative members, many engineers and academics, have little experience in the dirty game of politics and often appears stuffy and slow.

But if Shafiq and the military win the next vote, Egyptians could turn dangerously radical as the revolution that began in Tahrir Square goes violent.