Egypt's two most polarizing presidential candidates appeared headed for a runoff election next month that will decide whether the nation will be ruled by Islam or return to the secularist spirit that defined Hosni Mubarak's toppled police state.
Official results in Egypt's first free presidential election are expected to be released in coming days. But independent vote counts Friday indicated that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi will battle Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve Mubarak, in a June contest.
The stark matchup makes clear that despite a year of upheaval, the pillars of the past remain strong, and they are colliding over the future of the country. Morsi represents the Islamist ideals of the Brotherhood, which for decades was the most potent opposition to the old regime. Shafik embodies the Mubarak era, a former fighter pilot who bragged during the campaign of shooting down Israeli warplanes in the 1973 war.
Egyptian media reported that Morsi led the first round of voting with 26 percent followed by Shafik with 23 percent.
The result was a setback for the young activists, largely liberal and secular, who ignited last year's uprising that overthrew Mubarak. They failed to articulate a galvanizing vision for a country yearning for new leadership, leaving familiar ideologies to take on new resonance as Egyptians encountered military rule while common political ground diminished.
The surprises in the election results were the disappointing showings of one-time front-runners Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a liberal Islamist who finished fourth with nearly 20 percent of the vote, and Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and the savviest politician in the race, who came in fifth.
Another surprise was the unanticipated third-place finish for dark horse Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist nationalist regarded by the cultural elite as the strongest alternative to Islamist and Mubarak remnants.
By late Friday evening, Sabahi had won large parts of Cairo. But even though he was estimated to get more than 20 percent of the vote, that did not appear to be enough to close the margin on Shafik.
A Morsi win in the June 16-17 runoff would shape the contours of a political Islam evolving from the uprisings that ousted autocrats across the Middle East and North Africa. The Brotherhood has been accused of dogmatism and a lack of inclusion, but its leaders insist they are committed to civil liberties and protections for minorities, including Coptic Christians.
Shafik's law-and-order campaign portrayed Islamists as a threat to freedom and promised to end months of demonstrations. He appealed to millions of Egyptians seeking stability after months of economic turmoil and rising crime. A Shafik victory, however, would likely lead to renewed protests in Tahrir Square and further incite the country's combustible politics.
Shafik left little doubt about his disdain for demonstrations and dissent. "The revolution has ended," said his spokesman Ahmed Sarhan.
The two days of voting this week -- and the fervor around Friday's vote count -- were a testament to the fluidity of a drama that mesmerized the country. Thirteen candidates ran in a burst of political freedom that would have once been unthinkable.
Activists and young revolutionaries worry that Egypt is likely to endure years when civil rights will be endangered -- either through a new constitution anchored in Islamic law or by the heavy hand of Shafik, a retired Air Force general who was prime minister during the bloody crackdown on the protests that accelerated Mubarak's political demise.
"The results are depressing," said Tarek Khouli, head of the April 6th Democratic Front, which has helped lead anti-government protests. "Many revolutionaries are thinking of boycotting the runoff. We don't accept either man as our president."