It was a day most Egyptians thought would never come – when fraudulent votes and military rule would be things of the past and ordinary Egyptians would be able to truly vote for the leader of the Arab world’s most populous state.
Sixteen months after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak and the practices of his regime, people here were ecstatic about picking his successor in the first of two days of national balloting.
“I’m very excited,” said Sawsan Fattah, 56, after casting her ballot in the lower-middle-class neighbourhood of El Marg, in northeast Cairo. “We want stability in the country; I hope this election brings that.”
But for every voter who expressed joy, there were just as many who felt trepidation.
“The Islamists want everything,” said Samir Sedky, a Christian, after voting in his mixed Christian-Muslim working-class district of Imbaba in western Cairo.
Mr. Sedky was referring to the already dominant position held by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour party in the country’s parliament elected at the start of the year. “If they also win the presidency,” he added, “they will take everything from us.”
Not only Christians, who comprise 10 per cent of the population, are apprehensive. For the young liberals who got the revolution rolling last year, the almost certain prospect that the new president will be either an Islamist or a member of the old regime has come as a shock.
Though 12 men are on the ballot, only four – two prominent Islamist candidates and two former ministers from the Mubarak regime – have a realistic chance of winning.
While some liberals vowed to boycott the process, most gritted their teeth, as people do in democratic countries, and cast their votes for the one they saw as the least bad of the lot.
In Egypt, however, the stakes are high.
As the most populous and influential Arab state, Egypt can set the tone for an increasingly Islamist region. Indeed, should an Islamist president take office, there are serious doubts about whether Egypt will honour its treaty with Israel for long.
For Egyptian voters, however, foreign policy played little or no role in their choice. While some may worry about the social consequences of an Islamist administration, others fear disorder and a worsening economy.
Yehia Ghanem, for instance, is not worried about an Islamist state taking shape. The managing editor of the newspaper, Al Ahram International, wants to see an improved economy, without the kind of corruption that engulfed the Mubarak administration.
“The Muslim Brotherhood’s Renaissance program is excellent,” Mr. Ghanem said, referring to the party’s 20-year plan to reorder the country’s economy and education system.
“My problem is I like the program but not the man selling it,” he said, referring to presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi, the chairman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party. “I prefer Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh,” Mr. Ghanem said, referring to the other leading Islamist candidate, “but not his program.”
Dr. Aboul Fotouh, a pediatrician, and former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, sold himself as a moderate Islamist, a term some would call an oxymoron.
Indeed, for all his appeal to young revolutionaries, Dr. Aboul Fotouh, also is supported by Egypt’s largest Salafist organizations. He has said that, if elected, he would close shops selling alcohol, and recently stated he didn’t consider al-Qaeda to be a terrorist organization.
Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s own resume includes a stint in Afghanistan in the 1980s helping the wounded in the Afghan rebels’ war against the Soviet Union, and a leadership role in forming Egypt’s Gamaa Islamiya organization, albeit before it resorted to terror to achieve its aims of an Islamic state. (The Gamaa Islamiya recently renounced violence and is supporting Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s campaign for president.) His rival for the Islamist vote, Mr. Morsi, is known within the Muslim Brotherhood as a conservative, an image he has tried to soften by vowing recently to appoint a Christian woman as his vice-president.
That’s not consolation enough for people such as the Sedkys, the Christian family in Imbaba.
Both Mr. Sedky and his wife, Fayza, said they voted for Ahmed Shafik, a former air force chief and minister of civil aviation in the Mubarak era. as well as Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, a role that lasted only a few weeks. Casting their ballots for Mr. Shafik appears to be popular move in many of the country’s Christian communities.
“We think he’s the only one who stands a chance to enforce the law against the Islamists,” Mr. Sedky said.
The Islamist parties filled him with fear. “They think they can kill us and go to paradise,” he added, nodding down the road to where Islamist extremists attacked and killed a number of Christians last May and set fire to three of the area’s churches.
If the seemingly co-ordinated move to support Mr. Shafik is successful, it will rob Amr Moussa, a former Mubarak foreign minister, of much of his vote.
For years, Mr. Moussa toiled in the wilderness as head of the Arab League, polishing his international profile and popularity among Egyptians. When this election race began, he was the front-runner. Now it’s likely he’ll finish fourth in a four-horse race.
If no individual candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a two-day runoff election in mid-June.
But with some 70 per cent of the electorate having voted for Islamist parties in the parliamentary elections at the beginning of the year, it is assumed that the two Islamist candidates – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mr. Morsi and the former Brotherhood leader, Dr. Aboul Fotouh – have the better chance of getting on a second ballot.