CAIRO – Faced with a choice between Hosni Mubarak's ex-prime minister and an Islamist candidate, Egyptians voted Saturday in a presidential runoff the outcome of which will mean the difference between installing a remnant of the old regime and bringing Islam into government.
The race between Ahmed Shafiq, a career air force officer like Mubarak, and Mohammed Morsi, a U.S.-trained engineer, has divided this mainly Muslim nation of some 85 million people 16 months after a stunning uprising by millions forced the authoritarian Mubarak to step down after 29 years in office.
Voters lined up outside polling centers an hour or more before they opened at 8 a.m. But turnout was not expected to exceed 50 percent, possibly because of voting fatigue. Since the ouster of Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011, Egyptians have voted several times -- in a referendum on a military-sponsored "constitutional declaration," in staggered and elections for parliament's two chambers and in the first round of the presidential elections last month.
Unlike in previous post-Mubarak voting when Egyptians were confident the balloting would be free, many this time round said they suspected the weekend's election may be tampered with. "I don't think Shafiq could win, I think he will win," said 26-year-old Nagwan Gamal, who lectures on engineering at Cairo University. "I think there will be corruption to ensure that he wins, but I think a lot of people will vote for him," she said at polling center in the Cairo district of Manial. She voted for
Morsi. Shafiq, a self-confessed admirer and a longtime friend of Mubarak, has campaigned on a platform of a return to stability and law-and-order, something that resonated with many Egyptians frustrated and fatigued by more than a year of turmoil -- from deadly street protests, a surge in crime, to a faltering economy and seemingly endless strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.
In contrast, Morsi marketed himself as a revolutionary who is fighting against the return of the old regime, promising guaranteed freedoms and an economic recovery, while softening his Islamist rhetoric in a bid to reassure liberals, minority Christians and women.
"The revolution was stolen from us," merchant Nabil Abdel-Fatah said as he waited in line outside a polling center in Cairo's working-class district of Imbaba. He said he planned to vote for Shafiq. "We can easily get rid of him if we want to, but not the Brotherhood, which will cling to power."
Brotherhood supporter Amin Sayed said he had planned to boycott the vote, but changed his mind after a court earlier this week dissolved parliament and allowed Shafiq to stay in the race. "I came to vote for the Brotherhood and the revolution and to spite the military council," he said outside the same polling center in Imbaba, a stronghold of Islamists. "If Shafiq wins, we will return to the streets."
The two-day balloting will produce Egypt's first president since the ouster of Mubarak, now serving a life sentence for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising that toppled his regime.
The winner will be only the fifth president since the monarchy was overthrown nearly 60 years ago.
The election is supposed to be the last stop in a turbulent transition overseen by the military generals who took over from Mubarak. But whether they will genuinely surrender power by July 1 as they promised has been questioned all along, much more intensely since the military-backed government this week gave military police and intelligence agents the right to arrest civilians for a host of suspected crimes. Many saw the move as a de facto declaration of martial law.
On Thursday, judges appointed by the former president before he was toppled dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and ruled that Shafiq could stay in the race despite a legislation barring Mubarak regime figures from running for office.
The move robbed the Brotherhood, which dominated the legislature, from its pro-Mubarak gains and threw the entire transitional process into disarray. They also led to suspicions that the vote may be rigged in favor of Shafiq, widely seen as the general's favorite candidate.
The generals deny that charge, but without a parliament or a constitution, and with the right to arrest civilians, they will wield even greater powers going forward, with the future president.
Already, the generals have been blamed for mismanaging the transition and they stand accused of killing protesters, torturing detainees and hauling before military tribunals at least 12,000 civilians since January last year.
"We didn't have a revolution to topple a regime that made us live in poverty and didn't treat us like human beings so we can bring it back," said school teacher Mohammed Mustafa as he waited to vote in Cairo.
"We lost this country for 30 years, and we are not ready to lose it again," he added. "I have no doubt there will be fraud.
If there is, I will return to the street to win back my dignity because I won't live as a slave anymore."