Egypt's new beginning

For the first time in some 5,000 years of Egyptian civilization, voters went to the polls this week to select a leader in a contest where the outcome was uncertain. Given Egypt's crucial role in maintaining order and stability in the Middle East and the wide range of candidates, from secular to military to Islamist, that fact is unnerving to some in the United States, Israel and elsewhere. But it has been a cause of unbridled jubilation throughout Egypt, where millions of ordinary people lined up to cast ballots and determine their national destiny. It will likely be weeks before we know the victor and still later before we know what shape the government will take. It is entirely likely that Egypt's new leaders will make mistakes or choose paths that are inimical to our interests. But it is impossible to witness what has happened there this week and not share the optimism of a people tasting the power of democracy for the first time.

Thirteen candidates are competing for the presidency, and although polls there are considered unreliable, four appear to be strong contenders. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that won the most seats in parliament, is backing Mohamed Morsi, but a former Brotherhood official, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, is competing as a more moderate Islamist choice. Other top contenders include two former officials in the deposed government of Hosni Mubarak: Amr Moussa, a former head of the Arab League; and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force officer who is the most closely allied with the military. A socialist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, is thought to have an outside chance of doing well in this week's voting, which stretched over two days. Unless one of the candidates wins an outright majority — which is unlikely — the top two vote getters will compete in a runoff on June 16.

International monitors said the voting appeared to be free of the kind of official corruption that marred the sham elections of the Mubarak era. One of the candidates, Mr. Shafiq, was harassed by protesters and pelted with shoes after he voted, and monitors reported occasional violations of a rule against election-day campaigning, but that was the extent of the reports of trouble, despite hours-long lines at polling places. Turnout was high in both the cities and rural areas throughout the country.

The selection of a president stands to be the most crucial step yet in Egypt's journey from the Tahrir Square protests of early 2011 to the establishment of a true democratic government. The military council that has ruled Egypt since Mr. Mubarak's ouster has pledged to cede power once a new president is elected, and only the primacy of civilian leadership over the military will mark the nation's true emergence from decades of strongman rule. The path might not be easy. Egypt has been unable so far to agree on a new constitution, and the military council has said it will leave an interim one in place. The eventual balance of power among the military, parliament and president remains an open question.

So too will be the balance between Islamists and secularists. The revolution was largely powered by secular forces — particularly educated, cosmopolitan youths in Cairo — but Islamists dominated elections for parliament earlier this year, due in large part to the organizational muscle of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although that group had been officially outlawed for decades, it remained a potent force outside the control of the Mubarak regime.

This election will tell us much about the mindset of the Egyptian people at this moment, but it may not definitively settle either of those two questions. The election of Mr. Shafiq, for example, might suggest a less than full break from Egypt's past, and a victory by Mr. Morsi might consolidate power in the hands of Islamists at the expense of secular democracy. But it will be the actual experience of governance that will determine the character of Egypt and its relations with the rest of the world in the years ahead. When forced to manage a struggling economy and contend with the realities of diplomacy, the Islamists may well discover the value of some flexibility on social and religious issues. And when confronted with a populace that has shown its willingness to take to the streets in opposition to military rule, even those candidates with ties to the Mubarak regime may well find themselves pushed in a different direction. New democracies — the United States included — often don't get things right at the very beginning, but the will of the people has proved a powerful corrective.

That is why the pride and hope shown by Egyptian voters this week is so heartening. They expressed a newfound sense of ownership of themselves, their nation and their future, and once awakened, that spirit will not easily be taken away.

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