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Empty Tahrir Square underscores split between Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s revolutionaries

On what was supposed to be the “Friday of Isolating Ahmed Shafiq,” a call to protest the Egyptian presidential candidate who was Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, the crowd in Tahrir Square could be counted in the hundreds, a sign that despite a week of effort there was still no agreement on how to stop Shafiq between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, the other candidate in next week’s presidential runoff, and the mostly secular revolutionaries whose protests toppled Mubarak 15 months ago.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not erect the biggest stage in Tahrir Square, as it has previously during demonstrations that drew tens of thousands, and its top officials did not show up to lead chants. Just a few Brotherhood supporters were present, obvious from the green hats they wore bearing the Brotherhood’s slogan, “Islam is the solution.”

The crowd was ironically small for Sheikh Mazhar Shahin’s sermon. Last year, the sheikh often preached to hundreds of thousands in the anti-Mubarak protests.

“The enemies of the revolution succeeded in shattering our unity into parties and candidates racing for positions,” Shahin said, his familiar voice echoing through Tahrir Square’s emptiness. “There is no option but uniting once again so that our revolution succeeds.”

But it was clear that the compromise that revolutionary candidates had hoped to reach with Morsi so that they could endorse him before voting begins in the runoff next Friday would not be happening.

On Tuesday, three candidates who were eliminated in the first round of voting – Hamdeen Sabahi, an Arab nationalist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist, and Khalid Ali, a human rights lawyer – met with Morsi to discuss what compromises he was willing to make that would allow them to openly endorse him, likely guaranteeing that Shafiq would lose. Together, the three candidates captured nearly half the votes in last month’s 13-man first round of voting. Sabahi came in first in Cairo, where Morsi finished third. He also was first in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city.

But Morsi refused to consider a proposal that would have named the failed candidates as deputies and prime minister, and Sabahi made clear in a tweet later that while Shafiq was not an acceptable president, neither was Morsi: “I will not support the imitation of Mubarak’s regime, or the continuation of Islamist control.”

With no endorsement, Morsi is faced in a runoff that Shafiq also could win – depending on how many of the supporters of the other candidates decide to vote.

That leaves revolutionary hopes of a different outcome to the election hanging on a court decision next week on the validity of a law that would have banned Shafiq from running. The country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, whose chairman is Farouk Sultan, a former military judge who also heads the country’s elections commission, has announced that it would rule Thursday on the so-called political isolation law, passed earlier this year by the Islamist-dominated Parliament.

If the law is declared valid, losing candidates hope that will force new presidential elections, giving them another shot.

In Tahrir Square, however, it was clear that the few Brotherhood supporters there did not favor such a result, or the possibility of a widespread boycott.

“We want the elections to continue, we want people to focus on voting for Morsi and not fall for boycott calls which will only help Shafiq,” Ahmed Kamal, a 26 year-old Morsi campaigner, said as he rested in the shade, a photo of Morsi pinned to his chest.

“We will not wait for the political isolation law,” he said. “We will carry on with the elections, and Morsi is going to win.”

The lack of an agreement between the losing candidates and Morsi only strengthened the position of those who favor a boycott of next week’s vote.

“The Brotherhood turned their backs on other political powers because they are confident Morsi will win,” said Mohamed Hassan, a 27-year-old unemployed native of Monofeya, Mubarak’s hometown, where Shafiq won more than a half a million votes in May.

“They don’t want the political isolation law because then the competition will be between Morsi and Hamdeen Sabahi, who would be a great threat to the Brotherhood’s candidate,” said Hassan, who carried a “boycott elections” banner as he stood at the entrance to the square.

Hassan said he voted for Sabahi in the first round and predicted that if Sabahi were on the ballot again, he would win.

“If the political isolation law is passed, the Brotherhood will know their real weight,” he said.

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