Very preliminary returns in the first round of Egypt's presidential election suggest that the official Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate, Mohamed Morsi, came in first, with Ahmed Shafik in second place. Shafik is a former Air Force general and was briefly prime minister as the old regime was collapsing.
There would be a historic irony if Shafik were to end up as president of Egypt. Had Mubarak and the Army played their cards better, Shafik might have been Mubarak's successor without the uprising that Egypt has experienced. Had Mubarak realized and stated publicly that at 82 he could not run again, and said that Egypt was not a monarchy (or a fake one like Syria) and that his son Gamal would not succeed him, I believe the Egyptian revolt would never have taken place. Mubarak and the Army could have agreed on Shafik as their candidate: He was close to Mubarak and like him an Air Force general, and, as we now see, he is indeed the man the military have agreed should run and represent their interests.
But his victory in a second round is not necessarily something we in the West should favor. Given that the MB is the leading party in parliament, and with the Salafists has an Islamist majority there, there is something to be said for the MB having the presidency as well--and thus 100 percent of the responsibility for Egypt's fate. Their popularity has already declined since the parliamentary elections as they have engaged in "impure" political activities (for example, by running a candidate for president after pledging not to do so). It will decline more over time if, as I expect, Egyptians come to realize that the MB has no answers for the country's economic plight. I understand the argument that it won't matter, that Egyptians will be happy to live in ever-deeper poverty and chaos so long as their rulers are virtuous, but I am not persuaded.
If Egypt's "liberals" (meaning, people who believe in democracy, liberty, and the rule of law rather than Islam as the guiding principles of the state) are to have a chance in future years, the predicate must be that the electorate believes the MB had a clear chance and failed them. If Shafik wins, many Egyptians will believe the elections were stolen by the Army and the old regime's machine, and in any event power will be divided between the MB on one side and the Army and president on the other. There will be no clear lesson to learn if conditions in the country then continue to deteriorate. If Morsi wins, the MB will be in charge--and have to deliver. And when they fail, as I expect they will, it will absolutely clear whom to blame.
I am aware of the counter-arguments to this idea, for example, that the MB might use their time in power to begin a war with Israel or to eliminate all opponents. This is not persuasive either: It is obvious that war with Israel would destroy Egypt's economy when the MB needs to revive it, and eliminating all opponents would require crushing the Army--when, as the Shafik candidacy shows, the military and its allies are very much alive and appear able to fight for their interests. So a Morsi victory should not be mourned; given the situation in Egypt, in this election the loser might pity the winner. Two cheers for Morsi!