Egyptians revel in first free presidential vote, but fears for future are never far away
As tens of millions go to the polls, it remains unclear what the new leader's powers will be.
The daily Al-Masry Al-Youm conveyed the atmosphere well in Egypt on Wednesday: "Egypt of the revolution chooses the first elected president for the 'Second Republic.'" The impressive sight of the recent parliamentary elections repeated: Masses of people waiting in line to cast their ballots.
Despite rumblings about the involvement of the army and intelligence service in the election, voting will probably proceed uneventfully on Thursday.
One of the few mini-dramas to mar events on Wednesday was provided by candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who called a press conference in the afternoon, defying the election committee's prohibition against campaigning after Monday.
The committee announced it was filing a complaint with Egypt's attorney general against Shafiq, who had run on a law-and-order platform. In the evening, when Shafiq arrived to vote at a Cairo polling station, he was pelted with stones and shoes.
In another incident, three voting stations in the Beni Suef region were closed after fistfights broke out between supporters of the two Islamist contenders. One is former Muslim Brotherhood member, Abdel Moneim Abu al-Futuh, who left the movement to run for president. The other is the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi.
But the long lines showed that Egypt's 52 million voters understood the significance of choosing their new president. A few voters who were interviewed by the media could not hide their excitement after decades under dictatorship.
The daily Al Ahram was cautious, discussing the "day after" on its front page and the plan to pass a constitutional amendment outlining the president's powers immediately after the first round of voting.
Some people in the street were skeptical. "The revolution was like a beautiful woman," a vegetable seller told CNN. "She charmed us and we fell in love with her, so we killed the tyrant to marry her." But in the end, the man said, the revolution "only added more weight to our heavy burden, and our love for her is over."
Another man with a more sober view stood in line on Wednesday morning for two hours to vote. It was none other than Amr Moussa, Egypt's former foreign minister and a former secretary general of the Arab League. Until recently he was considered a top presidential candidate. But the polls are predicting various outcomes, so it's hard to guess who will win.
Moussa and his rivals called on all Egyptians to respect the outcome. Such statements reflect concerns over the enormous challenges awaiting the day after the balloting.
It's not only Egypt's economy, which has declined since the February 2011 revolution and could spark new protests. People feel less safe in the streets. Gangs of robbers operate in broad daylight, and sexual assault and religiously motivated attacks are frequent.
Chaos reigns in the Sinai Peninsula, which has become fertile ground for armed Bedouin militias and hundreds of Global Jihad supporters.
And don't forget Iran's efforts to undermine the country's stability. Three days ago, the Egyptian press reported that security forces had stopped several trucks between Port Said and Alexandria in northern Egypt; the trucks were smuggling 120 antitank missiles. One can only imagine what is being smuggled into Egypt and from there to Sinai in trucks the security forces don't stop.
Another challenge facing some candidates, particularly secular ones like Moussa and Shafiq, is Egyptians' identification of them with the old regime.
The former Salafi candidate, Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, said that if Shafiq or Moussa are elected, the old regime will have won and the revolution will not be over.
In light of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis' complete control of parliament, a secular president could face battles that paralyze the country and prevent any chance of turning things around.
But Morsi and the moderate Islamist Abu al-Futuh have no experience as leaders; they won't be very encouraging for foreign investors. And neither would be likely to resolve the religious tensions in the country, home to 10 million Coptic Christians.
Meanwhile, in the background are attempts by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to preserve some of its powers to run the country. In fact, the military council is delaying publication of the amendment outlining the president's powers; maybe it wants to see who reaches the next round, and then expand or reduce the president's powers accordingly.
This would be a clear attempt to limit the Islamists' powers, and neither Abu al-Futuh nor the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to stand idly by if the council tries to limit the president's powers.
For now, not only is it impossible to know who will win, it's unclear what the winner will and won't be allowed to do. In many senses, the Egyptians voting on Wednesday and Thursday are marching into the unknown.