CAIRO - Egyptians relished their first free leadership vote on
Wednesday, with Islamists pitted against secular figures in a contest
unthinkable before a popular revolt swept President Hosni Mubarak from
power 15 months ago.
With no reliable opinion polls, no one knows who will win the
presidency, but Egyptians enjoyed the uncertainty after the routinely
rigged votes of Mubarak's 30 years in power.
"We must prove that the times when we stayed at home and someone would
choose for us are over," said Islam Mohamed, a 27-year-old swimming
coach, waiting at a Cairo polling station. There were no early reports
of vote-related violence and independent election monitors said they saw
no major abuses.
The election is a momentous sequel to Mubarak's overthrow on February
11, 2011. The military council in charge of a messy and often bloody
political transition since then has overseen a constitutional
referendum, parliamentary polls and now a vote for a president to whom
it has promised to hand power by July 1.
The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square may be reluctant to trust Egypt's
future to Islamists or Mubarak-era politicians, but those candidates may
appeal to many of the 50 million eligible voters who yearn for
Islamic-tinged reform or who want a firm and experienced hand to restore
stability and security.
Whoever wins faces a huge task to relieve a dire economic outlook and
will also have to deal with a military establishment keen to preserve
its privileges and political influence.
The relative powers of the president, government, parliament, judiciary
and military have yet to be defined as a tussle over who should write a
new constitution rumbles on.
Many Egyptians were still undecided even as they went to the polls on the first of two days of voting.
A historic choice
"I will vote today, no matter what, it is a historic thing to do,
although I don't really know who I will vote for," said Mahmoud Morsy,
23. He then said he would probably plump for Mohamed Mursi, candidate of
the Muslim Brotherhood, whose voting machine has already ensured it the
biggest bloc in parliament.
The nation of 82 million was in festive and relaxed mood, with many
voters joking and chatting on a day to remember, although queues thinned
later in scorching midday heat.
"Rise up Egypt," ran a giant headline in the popular daily Al Masry Al Youm, while state-run Al Gomhuria offered: "The president is in the ballot box, the key is with the people."
Voters shuffled slowly towards the ballot booths in bright sunshine.
Some had brought chairs and newspapers, anticipating long lines, but
turnout did not seem as high as in a winter vote for parliament, Egypt's
first free election in decades.
Egyptians also enjoyed seeing presidential hopefuls queuing alongside
them to vote, in scenes a world away from past elections when state TV
filmed a cosseted Mubarak casting his ballot among doting officials with
no ordinary voter in sight.
In one Cairo district, 75-year-old Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister
and Arab League secretary-general, stood in line with everyone else. "I
hope they will elect a president who can really lead Egypt at this time
of crisis," he said.
Some voters clapped for independent Islamist contender Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, 60, when he too joined a queue in Cairo.
"For the first time the Egyptian people went out to choose their
president after the end of an era of 'pharaohs,'" Abol Fotouh said,
alluding to Mubarak and his autocratic predecessors who, like him, were
drawn from the top ranks of the military.
Unless one candidate gets more than half the votes needed to win
outright, the top two will face a run-off on June 16 and 17. Official
first-round results will be only be announced on Tuesday, but the
outcome could be clear by Saturday.
Many Egyptians felt empowered and excited by the occasion.
"I've never voted for a president before in my life so the experience is
quite new and makes me feel like a citizen of this country," said Ahmed
Ali, a pharmacy student in Alexandria.
Although official campaigning ended on Sunday, candidates pushed to get
out the vote. In Cairo, half a dozen mini-buses plastered with "Yes to
Amr Moussa" offered free rides to voters.
One Alexandria mini-bus driver was not charging voters heading to the
polls. "The rides today are on me," said Fathi Abdelaal. "Egyptians are
finally in command of their destiny."