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Egyptians were electing a president freely for the first time yesterday, making a daunting choice between a former general of the old guard and an Islamist who says he is running for God.
Many were perplexed and fearful of the future and signs were that, as in last month’s first round, millions would not vote. The contest, pitting Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, against Mohamed Morsy ,of the Muslim Brotherhood, the veteran Islamist movement, is supposed to seal a democratic transition that began with Mubarak’s overthrow 16 months ago.
But concern over a backlash among the disappointed losers saw the interior ministry put forces on alert across the country for the end of two days of voting at 10pm.
“We have to vote because these elections are historic,” said Amr Omar, voting in Cairo, who called himself an activist of the youth revolution.
Reluctantly putting aside misgivings about the Brotherhood’s religious agenda, he said: “I will vote for Morsy. Even if it means electing the hypocritical Islamists, we must break the vicious cycle of Mubarak’s police state.”
But many other Egyptians, weary of political turmoil and the economic crisis it has brought, believe Shafik has the backing of the “deep state” – entrenched interests from the military to big business – and so may be better placed to bring prosperity.
Privately, officials from both camps suggested Shafik had edged ahead with five hours of busy evening voting still ahead.
The election comes amid a constitutional crisis and a stand-off between the ruling generals and the Brotherhood, which emerged from decades of repression under Mubarak and previous military leaders to sweep the parliamentary vote.
Those gains crumbled last week when senior judges, appointed under Mubarak, ruled that election void and the ruling military council dissolved parliament – a move met with only a muted reaction from many, who felt the Brotherhood had pushed its own particular interests too hard over the past few months.
Egyptians massed in their millions against Mubarak in January last year in the hope that his removal would end poverty, corruption and police brutality. Many now seem tired of the social turmoil and political bickering that ensued.
The majority who voted for neither Shafik nor Morsy in a first-round presidential vote last month now face what they see as a stale contest between a military establishment and its perennial foe, which smothers hopes for a change for the better.
Many Egyptians may be staying away, but a sample of voter comments near polling stations suggest many had put aside doubts about Shafik, whose campaign has gained momentum since he entered the race a few months ago as an outsider.
Waleed Mohamed, 35, voting in Cairo, said he chose Shafik, while his wife Hind Adel has opted for Morsy. “That’s democracy for you,” she said. “Everyone has their opinion… No one knows who will win. God knows.”
Monitors said they had seen only minor and scattered breaches of election rules by yesterday morning, but not the kind of systematic fraud that tainted elections under Mubarak. Monitors and vote officials said the turnout seemed lower on Saturday and yesterday than in the first-round ballot.
Yesterday, the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper’s website said the military would issue a constitutional declaration within 48 hours to outline the president’s powers, including appointing officials, calling parliamentary elections and outlining new rules for appointing an assembly to draft a new constitution.
But senior Brotherhood official Mahmoud Ghozlan said the ruling military council did not have the right to issue a constitutional declaration or make rules on how the constituent assembly should be formed.