A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Cairo June 16, 2012. Egyptians queued to choose a new leader on Saturday in the first free presidential election in their history, facing a stark choice between a conservative Islamist and a former military officer who served ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih (EGYPT – Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Egyptians voted on Saturday in the first free presidential election in their history that for many offers a choice of the lesser of two evils – a military man who served deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak or an Islamist who says he is running for God.

Reeling from a court order two days ago to dissolve a new parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many question whether the wealthy generals who pushed aside their fellow officer Mubarak last year to appease the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring will honour a pledge to let civilians rule.

“Egypt chooses a president today without a constitution or a parliament,” Al-Masry Al-Youm daily wrote in a front-page headline, highlighting the uncertainty many Egyptians feel 16 months after Mubarak’s 30-year rule ended with mass protests.

With neither a parliament nor a new constitution in place to

define the president’s powers, Saturday and Sunday’s run-off vote will not settle the matter, leaving 82 million Egyptians, foreign investors and allies in the United States and Europe unsure what kind of state the most populous Arab nation will be.

Whoever wins, the army retains the upper hand. A Shafik presidency means a man steeped in military tradition will be back in charge, just like all the other previous presidents. If Morsy wins, the military can still influence how much executive authority he has in the yet-to-be-written constitution.

Many fear the Brotherhood will not accept a defeat quietly and a Shafik win could touch off new turmoil on the streets, forcing the army to take sides to impose order and further unsettling a state at the heart of a turbulent Middle East.

The euphoria that accompanied Mubarak’s overthrow on February 11, 2011 has given way to exhaustion and frustration after a messy and often violent transition overseen by the generals.

For those who preferred the secular centrists, leftists and moderate Islamists who lost in the first round, the two-man run-off leaves an unpalatable choice from the extremes.

Some of Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters say they will despoil their ballots rather than back Ahmed Shafik, 70, a former air force commander who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, or Mohammed Morsy, 60, of the Brotherhood, the clandestine enemy of army rule for six decades.

“Both are useless but we must choose one of them unfortunately,” said Hassan el-Shafie, 33, in Mansoura, north of Cairo. “But I am thinking of spoiling my vote.”


Yet, Shafik has won over many who see him having the army’s backing to bring stability to a nation, whose economy has been teetering on the brink of crisis with its foreign reserves drained dramatically after tourists and investors packed up.

“He has exactly what we need in a leader. A strong military man to have a strong grip on the state and bring back security,” said Hamdy Saif, 22, a student in Cairo’s Nasser City district.

There are signs of exasperation with the Brotherhood’s push for power on the back of a revolt driven in its early stages by the secular, urban middle class that may limit Morsy’s ability to widen his appeal beyond the Brotherhood’s disciplined ranks.

The Brotherhood had secured the biggest bloc in parliament elected in a vote that ended in January. It ran for more seats that it initially said it would and then angered some Egyptians by reneging on a declaration not to seek the presidency.

The court ruling to dissolve parliament reverses its gains, and helped win at least some more sympathisers for the group.

“I was going to vote for Shafik but after parliament was dissolved, I changed my mind and will vote Morsy. There is no more fear of the Islamists dominating everything,” said Ahmed Attiya, 35, a IT technician in Cairo’s Zamalek district.

“Shafik represents a counter-revolution,” he added.

He had joined others to vote early on the first of two days of voting. A result could be known as early Sunday night.

International monitors gave guarded approval of the first round of voting and there were no early reports of major violations on Saturday. One Egyptian monitoring group said early indications were that voting was running smoothly.

The head of the election committee, Farouk Soltan, told Reuters “turn out was good so far” late on Saturday morning, after 46 percent eligible voters cast ballots in the first round.

Critics denounced the court’s parliament ruling as a coup and compared it to the start of the Algerian civil war, when the military cancelled an election won by Islamists 20 years ago.

But the Brotherhood renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt decades ago and an Islamist uprising in the 1990s was put down by Mubarak and his security forces, which have survived last year’s revolt intact.


Hardline Islamist violence this month in Tunis, where the first Arab Spring uprising inspired Egyptians to follow, has also hardened fears of political Islam, notably among those dependent on tourism for a living, secular activists, women and the Egypt’s Christians, who make up a tenth of the nation.

“With Shafik I know what policy he is going to pursue but Morsy is enigmatic and shadowy like their underground group,” said Walid Farouk, a 42-year-old cook, referring to the Brotherhood which was banned for decades under Mubarak.

But some voters said they would not be silent if Shafik won.

“Youths died in the revolution and not so the old regime can return. If Shafik wins, I will be the first one to gather the people and go to Tahrir Square,” said Sherif Abdel Aziz, 25, a worker in Fayoum, a city south of Cairo.

More than 850 people were killed in the uprising that brought Mubarak down. The former president has been sentenced to life in jail as was his interior minister but many were angry with the June 2 verdict because six top police officers were acquitted, so many now feel Mubarak could win an appeal.

Both candidates have sought the centre ground, promising to rule in the spirit of the revolution: “It is not correct that the military council wants to rule through me,” said Shafik, seen as a potential successor even in Mubarak’s time although he and other contenders were overshadowed by the president’s son.

Protesters chanted slogans for and against Shafik as he voted in a Cairo suburb, slipping into the polling station by a side door. But he did not face the hail of shoes or the same kind of abuse that he received when he voted in the first round.

Morsy, a last-minute choice for the Brotherhood after their preferred candidate was barred, has played down talk of a crackdown on beachwear and alcohol that would hurt tourism and steered away from confrontation with Israel after three decades of cool peace maintained during Mubarak’s military-backed rule.

Morsy cast his vote in a Nile Delta city, driving into the grounds of the polling station set up in a school by car.

But both candidates are also defined by those who promoted them. The Brotherhood candidate says he is running because God expects him to offer his sacrifice for the nation. Shafik’s air force career shadowed that of Mubarak, his elder by 13 years.

“We are back to the political dynamic of secular versus Islamist, of a civil state versus an Islamist state,” said Mona Makram Ebeid, a political scientist and member of a body that advises SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

“That is what we as political forces are confronted with today, causing almost a gridlock,” she said, referring to months

of wrangling between the army, Islamists, liberals and other parties seeking to carve a new course for the nation.

During Mubarak’s era, his presidency was mainly endorsed in single-candidate referendums but in 2005, under pressure from his U.S. ally, he held a multi-candidate presidential race. No one was surprised when Mubarak cruised to an easy win because of rules that made it impossible to put up a realistic challenge.