Egyptians began voting on Saturday morning in a run-off presidential election that offers them a stark choice between a conservative Islamist and a former top military officer who was the last prime minister of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Some 50 million people were eligible to vote in the two-day poll to pick a successor to Mubarak, who was deposed in a popular revolt last year.
Neither Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood nor Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general and Mubarak's last prime minister, managed to secure an outright majority in the first-round election last month. Morsi got 24.8 per cent and Shafiq got 23.7 per cent.
Their win in the first round triggered angry protests, mainly from secularists and young people who led the uprising against Mubarak, who hoped for a transition to democracy.
Opponents of Shafiq see him as a symbol of the Mubarak regime, while critics of Morsi, an engineering professor, worry that his powerful group wants to establish an Islamic state in Egypt.
The more than 13,000 polling stations, which are spread across the country's 27 provinces, were due to stay open until 8 P.M.State employees are given the two days off work to vote. The government has announced reduced fares on public transport on the days of the vote.
Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who lost in the first round of Egypt's presidential election, on Saturday called on Egyptians to vote in the run-off election. Waiting to vote at a school in Cairo, Moussa, 72, said he supported the creation of a secular state in Egypt.
Official results are due to be announced on June 21.
Concerns of corruption
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, a constitutional court ruled that the whole of the lower house of Egypt's parliament must be dissolved and a new election be held. The court's head, Farouk Soltan, told Reuters of the ruling by telephone, after it was issued.
The court also gave Shafik the green light to continue his bid for Egypt’s presidency, when it ruled against a law that would have thrown him out of the race.
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. Whether Morsi or Shafiq, likely to be beholden to them.
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."
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