Robert Fisk: Only the military are guaranteed victory in this Egyptian election

Returning to Cairo, Robert Fisk finds the city gripped by the demise of its former president – but fearing the outcome of the vote to decide his successor

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Hosni Mubarak's ghost – whether or not he is still alive at midday – will preside over today's Egyptian presidential election results. For Ahmed Shafik and Mohamed Morsi represent the two faces of the narrative which Mubarak always used to maintain his power: stability or the Islamist nightmare. Shafik, Mubarak's last Prime Minister, is the "stability" candidate who has already claimed victory. Morsi is the Muslim Brotherhood man who has already claimed victory. Add to this the childish and arrogant claim by the army and its greedy field marshal, Mohamed Tantawi, to hold on to all its privileges, no matter how Egyptians have voted, and today promises to be one of those bookmarkers that historians love.

Of course, if Mubarak dies today, the conspiracy theories will out-plot any other conspiracy theory in recent Arab history. How better to ameliorate the fury of a Shafik or a Morsi victory than the announcement of a state funeral for the grand old man who represented an Egypt which had an economy even if it didn't have freedom? Egypt's kindly people would surely not desecrate the memory of any great Egyptian leader, however cruelly he ruled them. After Sadat was assassinated, his funeral cortege passed through the streets in silence. Few were the crowds. But nowhere was there a hint of violence or anger.

But Mubarak – dead or alive – cannot change the awful significance of the election results. If they are as narrow as predicted – 52 per cent or 51 per cent – they will represent a divided nation and one torn in half not so much by sect or family but by capitalism and Islam. For Shafik, at the end of the day, is an elitist Mubarakite whose interest in freedom is overwhelmed by his promises of security – which means freedom only for his supporters – while Morsi's Islamism, tempered though it may be for the moment by an all-embracing fellowship with his fellow Egyptians, will surely lead to a soft sharia-state in which the minaret will always tower higher than the parliament building.

Yet when the military have already ripped up the results of earlier parliamentary elections – which the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies effectively won – and have decided that they, and they only, are capable of writing a new constitution, and that they, and they only, will define the powers of the new President, there is little to debate, whoever turns out to be the official winner of the presidential elections.

For be sure, if there is an official winner, there will also be an unofficial winner (for they will not be the same man) and thus the military – or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), as we are enjoined to call them – will step in to guarantee public safety and, in their infinite wisdom, rule Egypt until they have decided to crown the man who will do their bidding.

If this sounds too sinister – pharaohs have a bad track record in Egypt – it should also be remembered that the Scaf has blundered rather than ruled its way through the 16 months since Mubarak's deposition. It did not know whether to close down the revolution in Tahrir Square, it allowed senior police officers to get away – quite literally – with murder and then permitted its young soldiers to run amok in front of television cameras, molesting and beating women. Tantawi may be Mubarak's life-long chum, but he is no Nasser or Sadat or Hafez al-Assad, men who would never trip up in public. The Scaf's spokesmen, burdened as they are with the insignia of the cross-swords of a general on every shoulder, sound oddly ill-at-ease, shy, even unhappy at their press conferences. Dictatorship? Us?

And of course, even if Shafik wins with his supposed 51 per cent of the vote, that is hardly a mandate for dictatorship. And unless the Brotherhood declare the result a fraud and take to the streets en masse – it is not difficult to imagine how police provocation could turn such an event violent – the army can hardly adopt the techniques of massive repression so favoured in the past. Surely, they would try to divide the Brotherhood from the Salafists who scored so unexpectedly well in the parliamentary elections, but Egyptians are unlikely to participate in a civil war between Islamists.

More likely – and here comes the corrosive politics of the old Egypt – there will be tantalising opportunities held out. If Morsi is declared President, the army can trumpet their loyalty to the winner of a democratic election while ensuring that he remains muzzled. And the Brotherhood, let us remember, were negotiating with Mubarak's government even while the protesters in Tahrir Square were still being shot down by the state security police. The idea that the largest Islamist movement in Egypt has spent its darkest years in clandestinity is not true; Mubarak, for his own reasons, encouraged them to participate in elections as independents; and the Brotherhood duly obliged.

In other words, the Brotherhood are not necessarily the other side of the emperor's coin. They can be stroked and bargained with, and lavished with false praise, and – as long as they do not try to dissolve the army and the security apparatus which has tortured them (literally) for so long – may well work within the system of the "deep state" which is emerging in Egypt.

This will not satisfy the real revolutionaries, the young and the brave and the intellectuals (not necessarily all the same) who feel so betrayed by the events of the past year-and-a-half. The ElBaradeis will still be there to speak up, along with the political failures of the first presidential poll. And the West will be there to bellow if their human rights are violated by either "winner" in the election results today. Ah, that Mubarak might live to see all this ...

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