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Stark choice for Egypt in presidential poll

Reeling from a court order two days ago to dissolve a new parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many question whether the wealthy generals who pushed aside their fellow officer Mubarak last year to appease the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring will honour a pledge to let civilians rule.

“Egypt chooses a president today without a constitution or a parliament,” Al-Masry Al-Youm daily wrote in a front-page headline, highlighting the uncertainty many Egyptians feel 16 months after Mubarak’s 30-year rule ended with mass protests.

With neither a parliament nor a new constitution in place to define the president’s powers, the run-off vote will not settle the matter, leaving 82 million Egyptians, foreign investors and allies in the United States and Europe unsure what kind of state the most populous Arab nation will be. Whoever wins, the army retains the upper hand. A Shafik presidency means a man steeped in military tradition will be back in charge, just like all the other previous presidents. If Morsy wins, the military can still influence how much executive authority he has in the yet-to-be-written constitution.

Many fear the Brotherhood will not accept a defeat quietly and a Shafik win could touch off new turmoil on the streets, forcing the army to take sides to impose order and further unsettling a state at the heart of a turbulent Middle East. The euphoria that accompanied Mubarak’s overthrow on February 11 2011 has given way to exhaustion and frustration after a messy and often violent transition overseen by the generals.

For those who preferred the secular centrists, leftists and moderate Islamists who lost in the first round, the two-man run-off leaves an unpalatable choice from the extremes. Some of Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters say they will despoil their ballots rather than back Ahmed Shafik (70), a former air force commander who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, or Mohammed Morsy (60), of the Brotherhood, the clandestine enemy of army rule for six decades.

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