CAIRO - The results of Egypt's election to choose a replacement to Hosni Mubarak are leaving the United States with hard choices of supporting an Islamist candidate or a close aide to the deposed president.
We have to get our heads around the idea that there are no good things coming out of the Egyptian elections, as far as the United States is concerned, Eric Trager, an Egypt expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Miami Herald on Sunday, May 27.
Instead, this is about flavors of bad.
Figures cited by state media and party campaigns have put Muslim Brotherhood candidate in a run-off with Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last premier.
But the results have left Washington between hard choices of supporting the Brotherhood's candidate or Mubarak's former aide.
The United States was a staunch supporter of Mubarak until the final days of his 30-year rule.
Mubarak's human rights abuses were often overlooked or deemed less important than his role as a moderator in the Middle East.
Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and Development at the University of Maryland, says the US had little choice but to stay out, hope for a transparent democratic outcome, then deal with the consequences.
The runoff, set for June 16-17, is supposed to close an army-led transition punctuated by violence and political disputes since Mubarak's ouster in a popular revolt last year.
The turbulence has aggravated economic problems that will loom large for any president who takes over from military rulers, who are expected to retain a strong role for years to come.
A Brotherhood victory in the presidential election could prolong a struggle with the military over the drafting of a new constitution, already mired in a political wrangle.
But a Mursi triumph is no foregone conclusion.
Many voters may stay away from the second round, seeing both candidates as unpalatable.
And many Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 82 million people, are likely to swing behind Shafiq, viewing him as a bulwark against rising Islamist influence.
Asked about Christian fears, Mursi told a television interviewer on Saturday night that "Egypt belongs to all".
"Who killed them in protests? Who prevented them from building churches? The old (Mubarak) regime, not us."
Analysts believe that the US would see an independent Egypt emerging following the vote, regardless of the winner.
Two things are clear, no matter who wins, Telhami said.
First, Egypt will pursue a foreign policy course that will be far more independent of Washington than in the past.
Second, the new president will have every incentive not to rock the boat of foreign policy too much as he will need international cooperation, especially economic, and will need to focus on the home front.
He believes that Washington should not appear to be taking sides or even assuming that a particular outcome is inevitable.
But Julie Taylor, an Egypt expert at RAND Corp., a global non-profit analysis group, disagrees.
She believes that recent history in Egypt shows times of domestic discord to be the perfect time to address foreign policy issues, to distract attention away from domestic problems.
Taylor praises the Obama administration for taking a wait-and-see approach on Egypt election results.
There really wasn't much we could do.
She opines that both Mursi and Shafiq, if confirmed the top vote getters, will have a negative impact on US relations.A clear mandate is important, she said.