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Cairo - The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi is tempering forecasts of victory in Egypt's presidential election with a warning that vote rigging typical of the Hosni Mubarak era may hand victory to Ahmed Shafik, the deposed leader's last prime minister.
On the eve of the run-off, Mursi, 60, hopes a big turnout of voters worried about a revival of the old regime will prevent that outcome and make him Egypt's first Islamist president.
But after a court ruling by judges appointed under Mubarak dissolved a new parliament in which the Brotherhood was the main force, momentum appears to have ebbed away from Morsy, reflecting a broader sense that a political transition which had brought his movement dramatic gains is no longer going its way.
“If there is any fraud, there will be a huge revolution against the criminals ..., a huge revolution until we achieve all the goals of the January 25 revolution,” the stocky, U.S.-trained engineer said on Thursday, recalling the day last year when mostly secular activists launched protests against Mubarak.
But the military-led establishment seems unwilling to let the Brotherhood take anything like full power and few think the Brotherhood could take it by force, or would even to try.
Mursi presents himself as the defender of a revolution which the Brotherhood, wary after decades of bloody oppression, at first hesitated to back. He would, he says, be a president who will put an end to the corruption of the past and build a democratic system. Yet he has struggled to convince many.
In the 16 months since generals pushed Mubarak from power to appease the protesters, the underdog status which once buoyed the Brotherhood has been replaced in the minds of many with less favourable associations: critics accuse it of a hunger for power, breaking its word and squeezing others from public life.
While Morsy made it into the run-off, he did so with only half the votes the Brotherhood won in the legislative polls. And there was no mass outpouring of solidarity in the streets after Thursday's court ruling which was widely condemned as a “coup”.
Alluding to the kind of foul play that helped the old ruling party sweep elections during Mubarak's rule, Mursi accused Shafik supporters of planning to rig the vote in various ways: “I have confirmed information,” he said in an interview with the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper on Thursday.
Campaigning to widen his support base, Mursi has sought to address the array of accusations directed against the Brotherhood, which says it has been the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by its opponents.
In a 15-point manifesto issued this week, Mursi promised to form an inclusive administration, to defend the rights of women and minorities - Egypt's eight million or so Christians are notably nervous - and to protect freedom of the media. Yet that has won him few endorsements beyond the Islamist sphere.
While most liberal and leftist groups have shied away from backing Mursi, the hardline Salafi Islamist groups he courted early on in his presidential bid with promises to implement Islamic law have hit the campaign trail on his behalf.
“The Muslim Brotherhood are depending on the Islamists, but also on the fact that those who used to be very anti-old regime will not go as far as to vote for Ahmed Shafik,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist and independent reformist.
Flung into the race by the disqualification of the Brotherhood's preferred candidate, Khairat al-Shater, Mursi had cast himself as a reluctant latecomer to the election who is running for the sake of the nation and for God. He has struggled to shrug off the label of the group's last-minute “spare wheel”.
Facing a field including Islamist opponents in the first round, he struck a deeply religious tone. His speeches were peppered with references to God, the Koran and the Prophet Mohammad.
In a gesture to Gama'a al-Islamiya, one of the Salafi groups, Mursi pledged to work for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a militant preacher imprisoned in the United States for planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Another cleric, the independent Safwat el-Hegazi, added a radical flavour to Mursi's early campaign, taking to the stage at his events to call for a Muslim super-state across the Middle East with Jerusalem as its capital - a direct challenge to Israel with whom Mubarak maintained a 30-year peace.
Switching from a conservative to an inclusive tone, Morsy has distanced himself from such aggressive statements.
Asked about Hegazy's remarks in an interview this week, he spoke of European Union-style integration for the Arab world and an Arab common market. “Jerusalem is in our hearts and vision, but Cairo is Egypt's capital,” he said.
Mursi has seldom spelled out what promises to implement Islamic law would mean for Egypt, where piety runs deep and the constitution already defines the principles of the sharia as the main source of legislation.
He has said Brotherhood rule would not mean that Egypt will be a theocracy, adding that there is little difference between the phrase “the principles of the sharia” - the term found in the current Egyptian constitution - and the sharia itself.
Pushed by one TV interviewer to clarify what Islamist rule might mean for bikinis on Egypt's beaches - an so for Egypt's vital tourist industry - Mursi did not give a clear answer.
He described such issues as “very marginal, very superficial and affecting a very limited number of places”, adding that sector specialists must be consulted on all draft laws.
Mursi travelled across the country, promoting the Brotherhood's “renaissance project” - an 80-page manifesto based on what it terms its “centrist understanding” of Islam.
“It was for the sake of the Islamic sharia that men were ... thrown into prison. Their blood and existence rests on our shoulders now,” Morsy said during one of his early campaign rallies.
Like most Brotherhood leaders, Morsy spent time in jail under Mubarak. With a speaking style that is both stiff and formal, Morsy lacks the charisma of some of his rivals.
Critics say other Brotherhood leaders would have made better presidential candidates but Mursi was picked because he is part of a conservative clique that runs the mass-membership group.
The son of a peasant, Mursi has spoken of a simple childhood in a village in the Nile Delta province of Sharqia, recalling how his mother taught him prayer and the Koran. He obtained his doctorate from the University of Southern California after earlier studying at Cairo University.
Following his studies in the United States, he returned to Egypt in 1985. Two of his five children hold U.S. citizenship.
Head of the Freedom and Justice Party which the Brotherhood established last year to promote its aims in the new party political system, Mursi has been described as an apparatchik.
His daughter is married to the son of another Brotherhood leader and he has described his wife, who wears a long, cape-like headscarf, as a Brotherhood activist.
The Brotherhood's “renaissance” programme sketches out the group's vision on everything from fighting inflation to remaking ties with the United States as a partnership of equals. It envisions deeper ties with Turkey - a Muslim state which Brotherhood leaders often cite as a model of success.
On Israel, Mursi's reflect those of the Brotherhood. He has called for a review of Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with its Jewish neighbour, saying Egypt's neighbour has not respected the accord. But the group has said it will not renege on the deal.
Mursi has cited fear of judgment day as one reason for seeking the top office. “We are worried,” he said, “That God will ask us, on the day of reckoning: 'What did you do when you saw that the nation was in need of sacrifice and effort?'“ - Reuters