June 18, 2012 | Quoted by Matt Bradley, The Wall Street Journal

Two Villages, Two Egyptian Views

SHARQIYYA GOVERNORATE, Egypt—Only nine miles of rutted pavement separates the villages of Mubasher and Edwa, but the ideological division they represent has nearly split Egyptian politics in two during this weekend's presidential vote.

In polling that ended Sunday, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was born in Edwa, faced off against Ahmed Shafiq, a former regime stalwart whose ancestors come from Mubasher.

Both candidates represent divergent visions of Egypt's future, drawn from the divisions of its past. Mr. Shafiq has promised a return to the political stability that defined the autocratic rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Morsi draws from the Islamist political currents that Mr. Mubarak harshly oppressed. The divided loyalties in the governorate of Sharqiyya, as well their heavily populated rural neighbors, have turned hundreds of languid Nile Delta villages into something like swing states.

“The clash of the titans will be in Sharqiyya,” said one Shafiq campaign operative in an interview last month.

If Egypt's revolution was fought in its city squares, the democratic elections it yielded will be decided by rural voters, who have shown surprising—and unpredictable—ideological flexibility.

During parliamentary elections that began late last year, the once-illegal Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, swept results in Sharqiyya and its neighbors. But six months later, most of the Delta governorates seem to have flipped. In the first round of voting last month, Sharqiyya voters went for Mr. Shafiq. His promises of staunch secularism and heavy-handed security characterize a former regime that oppressed the same Islamists who were so in vogue here only months before.

The pattern among Sharqiyya's six million people is writ large in national polls. National support for the Brotherhood peaked in January at about 60%, according to Gallup, the U.S. pollster. By April, it had fallen to about 40%, according to Dalia Mogahed, who oversees the group's polling in Egypt.

Some residents of Mr. Shafiq's ancestral hometown of Mubasher, where not a single Morsi poster can be seen, say they felt hoodwinked by the Islamists who seemed to expand their power while offering little in the way of meaningful policy.

The FJP spent most of last year cooperating with the interim military rulers. But after the Brotherhood's political-party candidates won a strong plurality in Parliament, they used their newfound clout to assail the military leadership. The Brothers demanded to send their own nominees to the military-appointed cabinet of ministers, stacked the constituent assembly charged with drafting a new constitution and reneged on an earlier pledge that they wouldn't field a presidential candidate.

“The way in which they acted was worse than the National Democratic Party,” said Mubasher resident and Shafiq voter Alaa al-Gammal, 42 years old, referring to Mr. Mubarak's former party. “We went from one one-party Parliament to another one-party Parliament.”

Mr. Gammal and several of his fellow villagers said they were pleased with a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling Thursday to dissolve the Islamist-dominated Parliament they helped elect.

Such an abrupt souring on the Brotherhood speaks to the interests of Egypt's rural voters, said Khairi Abaza, a scholar at U.S.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Abaza's family is from Sharqiyya, and he spent several years in Egypt with the secular-minded Wafd Party.

Like voters everywhere, rural Egyptians tend to vote their interests, he said. Under decades of autocracy, those interests were almost always aligned with the central state in Cairo and its patronage networks that branch into the countryside.

That Islamists cooperated with the military leadership ahead of parliamentary polling probably helped them more than a popular affinity for their politics. “The countryside likes to vote with the government,” he said. “During the presidential elections they really thought the Brotherhood was not on good terms with the government, so they turned.”

Yet in Edwa, many residents said they were voting for Mr. Morsi—casting ballots in the same elementary school the candidate attended in the 1950s. To them, the transition amounted to a military-planned charade meant to defame the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.

“They want to taint the image of the Brotherhood and anyone who is fair and just,” said Hamada Ahmed Hussein, 40, who was seated opposite the Edwa Elementary School. “They keep confusing people. The military had this in their plan from the beginning.”

He and other Edwa residents complained the military deliberately gave Parliament few powers. When Parliament became little more than a talking shop, the public turned on them.

Just as several residents of Mubasher regarded the high court decision to disband Parliament as a blessing, residents of Edwa—where posters of Mr. Morsi cover almost every building—seemed to see it as a challenge. “It gave a push for people to be more supportive to Morsi,” said Khairi Hassan, Mr. Morsi's nephew and the leader of the Brotherhood in Edwa.

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