CAIRO An attack on the offices of one of the two finalists in Egypt's presidential race has sounded a warning that the last round of voting might spark more violence in a nation polarised by the choice between an Islamist and an ex-general from Hosni Mubarak's era.
Protesters set fire to storage rooms and smashed computers late on Monday at the campaign headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, a 70-year-old former air force chief and premier under Mubarak, who was confirmed as a run-off candidate after the first round.
His rival is Mohamed Mursi, 60, of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main Islamist group, which already controls the biggest bloc in parliament. Mursi offered on Tuesday to include members of other groups in senior posts if he is elected, a bid to win endorsements from rivals who lost the race last week.
Though he and Shafiq each took almost a quarter of votes cast, that leaves a big section of Egypt's 50 million eligible voters who are wary of having either a conservative Islamist or a former military man in charge. They face a wrenching decision in the run-off vote on June 16 and 17. Some say they won't vote.
"We either choose a politicised Islamic group which will crush civil liberties or the old regime," said lawyer Sherif El Hosseny, 34. "I am not sure whether I will even be voting."
Also grappling with the choice are the more secular-minded activists from the April 6 youth movement, which united protesters against Mubarak and his ruling party. For them, their revolution has been hijacked by Islamists and the old guard.
"The choice is between bad and worse, between a group that monopolises religion and power or the return of (Mubarak's) party," said Mahmoud Afify, an April 6 spokesman, adding the group was talking to Mursi to see if it could win guarantees to back him.
Shafiq has made no secret of his admiration for Mubarak, describing him as a role model after his own father. Protesters threw stones and shoes at him when he voted in Cairo last week.
Dozens of people marched in Alexandria on Tuesday holding banners against Shafiq. One read: "No to Ahmed Shafiq, a man of the previous regime."
Egypt's official news agency reported that four people had been detained in connection with the attack on Shafiq's offices, saying that two of them were members of a centrist party and another was a member of a liberal party.
The attack was the latest flare-up in a messy and often bloody transition to democracy since generals took over from Mubarak after an uprising forced him out on February 11, 2011. The army has pledged to hand over power by July.
Even before the first-round vote, revolutionaries who led the demonstrations that brought down Mubarak had promised to take to the streets if Shafiq were elected president of the Arab world's most populous nation.
"The situation in Egypt is in a critical and dangerous phase. We must work together so that the revolution isn't lost," Fareed Ismail, a senior figure in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told Reuters.
Yet any violence could help Shafiq's cause as his strongest card is his promise swiftly to restore law and order, which collapsed after Mubarak's downfall. Many believe the army will back him to deliver on that promise.
The military insists it is neutral in the race.
Thousands of Egyptians marched on Monday night in protest after the results of the first round were confirmed by the election committee. "No to Shafiq and to the Brotherhood. The revolution is still in the square," they chanted.
In his bid to broaden his appeal beyond the Brotherhood's disciplined network of supporters who propelled him to the run-off, Mursi indicated he was offering vice-president posts and even the prime minister's position to people outside his group.
"I am committed to the presidency being an institution. It will never be an individual," Mursi told a news conference.
Mursi, who said in his campaign he would implement Islamic law without spelling out what that meant in practice, sought to assuage some liberal fears by saying no one would force women to wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarves that many already wear.
Mursi also said he wanted to work with Christians, who make up a 10th of Egypt's 82 million people and fear Islamist rule.
In Cairo, some protesters held posters of Mursi with a cross over his face. But most chanted against Shafiq, who has support from many ordinary Egyptians who want a strongman to restore stability and revive the economy after 15 months of turmoil.
Dozens marched from protests around Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands had gathered when toppling Mubarak, to Shafiq's headquarters in the upscale Cairo district of Dokki.
"They seemed to know what they were after and they went directly to the storage rooms and set them on fire using petrol bombs," said Ahmed Abdel Ghani, 30, a member of Shafiq's campaign, surveying a scene of unusable, charred campaign flyers and leaflets scattered on the ground.
The main villa escaped the flames but protesters smashed laptops and computers inside, he said. Daubed on the wall outside the villa were the words: "No to Shafiq, no to feloul," an Arabic word referring to "remnants" of Mubarak's era.
Both Shafiq and Mursi may need to reach out to more centrist voters to win the run-off.
Although he makes no apology for his past and takes pride in his strong ties with the military, Shafiq needs to prove he will not revive the autocratic state apparatus protesters sought to dismantle. The army and the hated police force are still intact.
Liberal and other political groups have often criticised the Brotherhood for being slow to join the anti-Mubarak revolt, acquiescing too quickly to the ruling generals and seeking to dominate the political scene after their parliamentary success.
Mursi's backers believe Mursi and the Brotherhood, with its broad grass-roots network, is best placed to reform the state.
Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist candidate who came third in the race, is being courted by the Brotherhood. Like other politicians, he condemned the attack on Shafiq's offices.
Fourth-placed ex-Brotherhood member Abdol Moneim Abol Fotouh has called for backers to "stand united against the symbols of corruption and oppression" - a reference to Shafiq - but has not explicitly backed Mursi.
Like Sabahy, fifth-placed former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, once a favourite, has not backed either candidate.
The ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslim Al-Nour party, which controls the second biggest bloc in parliament and had backed Abol Fotouh, has thrown its weight behind Mursi.
Four candidates complained about the vote's conduct but the election committee dismissed all the complaints.
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Centre monitored the election, said he was broadly confident about the election process. Carter Center monitors highlighted several irregularities, notably lack of access in the final aggregation of national results.
Arab League monitors noted irregularities but said they were not enough to affect the result.
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