CAIRO (Reuters) - When he joined the race for Egypt’s presidency just five weeks ago, Mohamed Mursi was mocked as the Muslim Brotherhood’s uncharismatic “spare tyre” after its first-choice candidate was disqualified.
But the 60-year-old engineer came first in the opening round, according to a Brotherhood tally after most votes were counted, thanks to a campaign that showed off the unequalled political muscle of Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement.
The run-off on June 16 and 17 with second-placed Ahmed Shafiq, who served as deposed leader Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, gives Egyptians a stark choice between a military man linked to the past and an Islamist whose conservative message appeals to some and alarms others in this nation of 82 million.
A Brotherhood official said that with votes counted from about 12,800 of the roughly 13,100 polling stations, Mursi had 25 percent, Shafiq 23 percent, a rival Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh 20 percent and leftist Hamdeen Sabahy 19 percent.
Calling himself the only authentic Islamist in the race, Mursi has targeted devout voters whose support helped the Brotherhood and the ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamist movement to secure 70 percent of parliament seats earlier this year.
He has promised to implement Islamic sharia during rallies peppered with references to the Koran, God and the Prophet Mohammad and occasionally interrupted by pauses for mass prayer.
But he has seldom spelt out what that would mean for Egypt, where piety runs deep and the constitution already defines the principles of Islamic law as the main source of legislation.
Mursi has called for a review of Cairo’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, saying Egypt’s neighbor has not respected the agreement, a line mirroring that of most of the other candidates in the race. The group has said it will not tear up the deal.
“We will take a serious step towards a better future, God willing,” Mursi said at his final campaign rally on Sunday, promising to combat any corrupt hangers-on from Mubarak’s era.
“If they take a step to take us backwards, to forge the will (of the people) and fiddle with security, we know who they are,” he said. “We will throw them in the rubbish bin of history.”
Mursi has cast himself as a reluctant latecomer to the election who is running for the sake of the nation and God.
A stocky, bespectacled man with a grey-white beard, Mursi has traveled across Egypt promoting the Brotherhood’s “renaissance project” - an 80-page manifesto based on what it terms its “centrist understanding” of Islam.
His success has dismayed non-Islamists, not least Christians who make up about a tenth of the population, unconvinced by promises that freedoms will be safe in a Brotherhood-led Egypt.
“It was for the sake of the Islamic sharia that men were ... thrown into prison. Their blood and existence rests on our shoulders now,” Mursi said during one campaign rally.
“We will work together to realize their dream of implementing sharia,” said the Brotherhood contender, who himself spent time in jail under Mubarak.
Mursi, who obtained his doctorate from the United States, is a long-serving, influential figure in the Brotherhood, a movement outlawed under Mubarak but which won close to half of the seats in parliamentary elections held after his overthrow.
Mursi ran only after the electoral commission barred Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s preferred candidate, in April.
Like other Islamist contenders, Mursi has courted the ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamist movement, which has emerged in the past year to challenge the Brotherhood’s dominance.
The Nour Party, a Salafi group that won more than a fifth of the seats in the parliamentary vote, endorsed Mursi’s main Islamist rival, Abol Fotouh, who parted ways with the Brotherhood last year and cast himself as a moderate.
In a gesture to Gama’a al-Islamiya, another Salafi group, Mursi has pledged to work for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a militant preacher imprisoned in the United States in the 1990s for plotting attacks in New York.
Abdel-Rahman is the spiritual leader of Gama’a al-Islamiya, which was involved in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat but renounced violence in 1997. The group has entered mainstream politics since Mubarak was toppled.
Another cleric, the independent Safwat el-Hegazi, added a radical flavor to Mursi’s campaign, taking to the stage at his events to call for a Muslim super-state with Jerusalem as its capital and drawing enthusiastic chants from the crowds.
Mursi’s own speech-making style is stiff and formal. Critics say he lacks the charisma of some of his rivals. Other Brotherhood leaders, Shater among them, have appeared alongside Mursi at campaign events, reinforcing the impression this is a presidential bid by a movement, not an individual.
The son of a peasant, Mursi has spoken of a simple childhood in a village in the Nile Delta province of Sharqia, recalling how his mother taught him prayer and the Koran.
He studied engineering at Cairo University and in 1978 went to California to complete his studies. He returned to Egypt in 1985. Two of his five children hold U.S. citizenship.
Helmi el-Gazzar, a Brotherhood MP who has known Mursi for years, describes him as a scientific character with an analytical mind. “He was an indefatigable man, tangibly eager to perform the tasks for which he was responsible,” Gazzar told Reuters, recalling his days working with Mursi in Cairo.
Mursi’s critics portray him as a Brotherhood apparatchik and part of a conservative clique within the group who has long been dismissive of other political forces in Egypt.
“He feels they do not have roots in the Egyptian street,” said Mohamed Habib, a former deputy Brotherhood leader, who left the group last year in protest at its post-Mubarak policies.
Head of the Freedom and Justice Party that the Brotherhood established last year, Mursi comes across as deeply committed to the 84-year-old movement. His daughter is married to the son of another Brotherhood leader and he has described his wife, who wears a long, cape-like headscarf, as a Brotherhood activist.
Like other members, Mursi has sworn allegiance to the Brotherhood, raising questions over whether that would outweigh his loyalty to Egypt. Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie has said Mursi would be relieved of the oath if elected president.
Mursi has described his challenge for the presidency in terms of duty. “I am walking this path to satisfy God and out of concern for our nation and people,” he said.
Despite his campaign trail emphasis on Islamic law, when it comes to television interviews, he has typically tried to ease concerns about what Islamist rule would mean.
For example, he has said Egypt will not become a theocracy, adding that there is little difference between the phrase “the principles of the sharia” - the term found in the current Egyptian constitution - and the sharia itself.
Pushed by one TV interviewer to clarify what Islamist rule might mean for bikini-wearing on Egypt’s beaches - one element of a vital tourist industry - Mursi did not give a clear answer.
He described such issues as “very marginal, very superficial and affecting a very limited number of places”, adding that sector specialists must be consulted on all draft laws.
The Brotherhood’s “renaissance” programme sketches out the group’s vision on everything from fighting inflation to forging ties with the United States on a more equal footing. It envisions deeper ties with Turkey - a Muslim state that Brotherhood leaders often cite as a model of success.
Mursi has cited fear of judgment day as one reason for seeking the Egypt’s top office. “We are worried that God will ask us, on the day of reckoning: ‘What did you do when you saw that the nation was in need of sacrifice and effort?’” he said.
Editing by Alistair Lyon