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Sabahi, Aboul Fotouh won’t endorse in runoff, raising fears Egypt presidential vote will be polarizing affair

The top two candidates considered revolutionary picks during Egypt’s recent presidential balloting are refusing to endorse a candidate in next month’s runoff, giving renewed life to fears that this nation’s first contested vote for president is likely to be a polarizing, not unifying, event.

With the runoff pitting Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood, against Ahmed Shafik, a retired general who served as Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, a huge segment of Egyptian voters who favor democratic change say they have no representative in the race. Many say they haven’t decided whether they’ll even vote in the final round, now scheduled for June 16 and 17.

The refusal by Arab nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh to endorse either Shafik or Morsi only complicates their decision.

Together, Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh won 40 percent of the 26 million votes cast in last week’s balloting. Those 8.9 million voters, in theory, are now up for grabs, and they could decide who will become Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

But a boycott could seriously affect whether Egyptians view the new president as a symbol of unity or as a figure imposed, in the end, by a relatively small, even if powerful, minority. Already there are concerns that the 46 percent turnout in the first round was far off the 60 percent participation rate of parliamentary elections last year. A boycott by Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh partisans would depress the turnout dramatically.

“It is in (Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi’s) interest not to endorse anyone because it allows them to present themselves as the true defenders of the people’s interests,” said Karim el Assir, an analyst at the independent Cairo-based Signet Institute, a Middle East think tank. “But in the short term it contributes to political polarization at a time when whoever wins will need a broad mandate.”

Both Morsi and Shafik have tried to woo supporters of other candidates with promises of reforms and calls for national unity. After weeks of endorsing strict adherence to Sharia, Islamic law, in a nation that is 10 percent Christian, Morsi’s runoff campaign slogan now is “Our strength is in our unity.” But neither candidate has swayed Christians.

Both Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh have continued to argue that they would have been better representatives of the national interests.

Sabahi has been the most direct about not endorsing, saying he intends to remain a national figure and that his supporters would have to decide for themselves whether to vote in the runoff and, if so, whom to support.

Aboul Fotouh has urged voters not to select a Mubarak regime holdover, a clear reference to Shafik, but he has not endorsed Morsi.

Sabahi, in particular, enjoys a coveted base of support. He won nearly every major Egyptian population center, including Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and the Red Sea region, areas where he was not even considered a contender weeks ago. His promise not to be swayed by a party or the military is thought to be what won him such wide support, and his popularity has only grown since he came in third in the election. Some talk of writing his name on the runoff ballot. Others contend he was robbed by a government that rigged the election.

Aboul Fotouh was once thought likely to be the leader in the race, but came in fourth as he lost support from voters unsure of him and his increasingly moderate Islamist views. Regardless, on Thursday he sough to reinvent himself as the voice of a struggling revolution, presenting a four-point plan that he said the next president should carry out. It included a coalition government headed by a prime minister from a non-majority political party; two vice presidents; and a constituent assembly to represent Egyptian civil interests.

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this article.

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