CAIRO/ALEXANDRIA (Reuters) - 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.
Voting passed off calmly for the most part, but candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, came under attack from protesters who threw stones and shoes at his convoy as he voted at a Cairo polling station late in the day.
Shafiq, 70, was not hurt in the melee, witnesses said.
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.
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.
Unless one candidate gets more than half the votes needed to win outright, a run-off between the top two will take place on June 16 and 17. First-round results will be formally announced on Tuesday, but the outcome could be clear by Saturday.
Independent monitors said they saw no major abuses. Voters complained of some illegal campaigning outside polling stations.
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.
“I will figure it out when I hold that piece of paper in my hands. I will be inspired at the ballot box,” said 67-year-old
street sweeper Abdel Kareem Abdel Nasser.
The mood was festive and relaxed, with voters chatting in queues that thinned as temperatures climbed and swelled again in the evening. Voting was extended by one hour and the government declared Thursday a holiday to encourage a high turnout.
Egyptians had the novel experience of rubbing shoulders with presidential hopefuls who queued with them to vote, in contrast to the past when state TV would show the cosseted Mubarak family casting ballots amid a bevy of grinning officials.
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 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.
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.
Yet some were worried. George Boulos voiced concerns of many of his fellow-Christians, who make up a tenth of the population, about the rise of Islamists who already dominate parliament.
“I voted for Ahmed Shafiq because he is balanced and a non-Islamist candidate. He is not prejudiced against any segment of society. He is for all ordinary Egyptians,” Boulos said.
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.”
The nature of that destiny is far from clear.
The West, long wary of Islamists, and Israel, fearful about the fate of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and the boost the Muslim Brotherhood could give to its Palestinian offshoot Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are watching the post-Mubarak era closely.
“Our vote will make Egypt’s voice in the Arab world ring loud and clear,” said Saad Abed Raboh, an Alexandria bureaucrat.
Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-aligned Gulf states were alarmed at the fall of their longtime ally Mubarak and now worry who will replace him at the helm of the most populous Arab nation.
To allay Gulf fears, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi said on Sunday: “We will not export our revolution to anyone.”
Mursi joined the race at the last minute after the Brotherhood’s first choice was ruled out. He may lack charisma, but he has the group’s formidable organising skills behind him.
After voting, the U.S.-educated engineer took a swipe at Moussa and Shafiq: “No way can anyone from the fallen, corrupt, former regime come back to influence this nation.”
Shafiq, a former air force commander like Mubarak, appeals to Egyptians who want a strong hand to bring stability, even if opponents say he is tainted by links to the old order. Defending himself, Shafiq told a news conference: “I worked for the big family of Egypt not for someone or for a regime.”
Moussa left Mubarak’s cabinet more than a decade ago. After moving to the Arab League, he built on the popularity he had gained by criticising Israel and U.S. policy in the region.
Abol Fotouh, who was kicked out of the Brotherhood when he said he would run against its wishes, has sought support across the spectrum from liberals to hardline Salafi Muslims.
Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy has gained traction with many voters unsatisfied both with Islamists and Mubarak’s former ministers.
“Those who have been marginalised and throttled can now get their rights in a country of freedom and dignity,” Sabahy, a veteran champion of the downtrodden, said after voting in Cairo.
Mubarak, under pressure from his U.S. ally, did stage one multi-candidate vote in 2005, but with curbs that barred any realistic challenge to his rule. Last year’s popular revolt overthrew him before another election that was due in 2011.
Even if the presidential vote and the military handover pass off calmly, Egypt faces a bumpy road ahead.
“It is not going to be smooth,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“Not only are there economic problems to resolve, but Egyptians are going through a wrenching period in which they are trying to define what kind of political system they want, what kind of society they want, what Egypt stands for, and its proper place in the region and the world. These are not easy matters.”