After a lifetime of being told who will rule them, Egyptians dove enthusiastically into the uncertainty of the Arab world's first competitive presidential race Wednesday, wrestling with a polarizing choice between secularists rooted in Hosni Mubarak's old autocracy and Islamists hoping to infuse the state with religion.
Waiting in long lines, voters were palpably excited at the chance to decide their country's path in the vote, the fruit of last year's stunning popular revolt that overthew Mubarak after 29 years in power. For the past 60 years,Egypt's presidents ran unchallenged in yes-or-no referendums that few bothered to vote in.
Still, the choices raised worries among many about whether real democracy will emerge. The final result, likely to come after a runoff next month, will only open a new chapter of political struggle.
Mohammed Salah, 26, emerged grinning from a poll station, fresh from casting his ballot. "Before, they used to take care of that for me," he said. "Today, I am choosing for myself."
Medhat Ibrahim, 58, who suffers from cancer, had tears in his eyes. "I might die in a matter of months, so I came for my children, so they can live," he said, as he waited to vote in a poor Cairo district. "We want to live better, like human beings." He later came out flashing a finger stained with the blue ink used to prevent multiple voting. "Mubarak's policies gave me cancer," he said, referring to the decline in health care under the last regime. "Now I got my revenge."
Adding to the drama, this election is up in the air. The reliability of polls is uncertain, and four of the 13 candidates have bounced around the top spots, leaving no clear front-runner. None is likely to win outright in Wednesday and Thursday's balloting, so the top two vote-getters enter a run-off June 16-17, with the victor announced June 21.
The two secular front-runners are both veterans of Mubarak's regime — former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and former foreign minister Amr Moussa.
The main Islamist contenders are Mohammed Morsi of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians.
The debate went right up to the doorsteps of schools around the country where poll stations were set up.
Some voters backed Mubarak-era veterans, believing they can bring stability after months of rising crime, a crumbling economy and bloody riots. Others were horrified by the thought, believing the "feloul" — or "remnants" of the regime — will keep Egypt locked in dictatorship and thwart democracy.
Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, saw their chance to lead a country where they were repressed for decades and to implement their version of Islamic law. Their critics recoiled, fearing theocracy.
Some saw an alternative to both in a leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, who has claimed the mantle of Egypt'sfirst president, the populist Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
An Islamist victory, particularly by Morsi, will likely mean a greater emphasis on religion in government. His Muslim Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament, says it won't mimic Saudi Arabia and force women to wear veils or implement harsh punishments like amputations. But it says it does want to implement a more moderate version of Islamic law, which liberals fear will mean limitations on many rights.
Many of the candidates have called for amendments to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which remains deeply unpopular. None is likely to dump it, but a victory by any of the Islamist or leftist candidates in the race could mean strained ties with Israel and a stronger stance in support of the Palestinians in the peace process.
The candidates from the Mubarak regime — and, ironically, the Brotherhood, which has already held multiple talks with U.S. officials — are most likely to maintain the alliance with the United States.
A looming question is whether either side will accept victory by the other. Islamists have warned of new protests if Shafiq wins, which they say can only happen by fraud. Many are convinced the ruling military wants a victory by Shafiq, a former air force commander.
"Over my dead body will Shafiq or Moussa win. Why not just bring back Mubarak?" said Saleh Zeinhom, a merchant backing Abolfotoh. "I'm certain we'll have a bloodbath after the elections because the military council won't hand power to anyone but Shafiq."
Shafiq was met by several dozen protesters screaming "down with the feloul" as he arrived to vote in an upscale neighborhood east of Cairo. Some protesters showed their contempt by holding up their shoes in his direction. On his way out, some mobbed him, swinging their shoes at him as his security hustled him into his car.
Shafiq, who was Mubarak's last prime minister until he too was forced out of his post by protests, has been openly disparaging of the pro-democracy youth groups who led the anti-Mubarak uprising. Critics view him as too close to the generals who took over from Mubarak and whose own reputation is tainted by human rights abuses and authoritarian tendencies.
But with his strongman image, he has appealed to Egyptians who crave stability and fear Islamists.
"The country is going under. We need a president that implements justice and brings back security. Bottom line," said Essam el-Khatib, a government employee voting in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.
Nearby another man, Sayed Attiya, shouted, "What Shafiq? We didn't have a revolution to bring back Shafiq!"
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, faced a backlash of its own.
The group was the biggest winner in parliament elections late last year, winning nearly half the seats. But it disillusioned some by seeming too power hungry, demanding to be allowed to form a government and trying to dominate a panel created to draft a new constitution. The panel was scrapped and the process of writing the vital new charter is on hold as politicians struggle over forming a new one.
The image it has cultivated as an advocate of tolerance and piety was damaged by its campaign to discredit Abolfotoh, who quit the Brotherhood to run for president, and its edict that it is a sin to vote for anyone not advocating implementation of Islamic Shariah law.
At a polling station in the village of Ikhsas, outside Cairo, a group of neighbors got into a friendly but frank debate.
"I voted Brotherhood for parliament but I find they are inflexible in their opinions and want to take everything. I can't now find them in the country's top job," Bassem Saber, a 31-year-old accountant dressed in the traditional local robes, told the circle of men. He now backs Abolfotoh.
Khaled el-Zeini, a Brotherhood backer, said people were being unfair.
Fares Kamel, a local trader, interjected with a shout against the Brothers, "We loved them and wanted them but we realized they are all about monopolizing power."
But the group has a powerful electoral machine.
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Brotherhood vans ferried women supporters to the polls in the poor neighborhood of Abu Suleiman, one of the group's strongholds. The women, in headscarves or covered head to toe in black robes and veils that hid their faces, filed into the station.
"I want to give the Brotherhood a chance to rule," said Aida Ibrahim, a veteran Brotherhood member who was helping voters find their station. "If it doesn't work, they will be held accountable," she said.
Some Brotherhood supporters cited the group's years of providing charity to the poor — including reduced-price meat, and free medical care.
"Whoever fills the tummy gets the vote," said Naima Badawi, a housewife sitting on her doorstep watching voters in Abu Sir, one of the many farming villages near the Pyramids being sucked into Cairo's urban sprawl.
There were only a few reports of overt violations of election rules Wednesday, mainly concerning candidates' backers campaigning near polling stations. Three international monitoring organizations, including the U.S.'s Carter Center, were observing the vote. Former President Jimmy Carter, the center's head, visited a polling station in the ancient Cairo district of Sayeda Aisha.
The election's winner will face a monumental task. The economy has been sliding as the key tourism industry dried up — though it is starting to inch back up. Crime has increased. Labor strikes have proliferated.
And the political turmoil is far from over. The generals who took over from Mubarak have promised to hand authority to the election winner by the end of June. But many fear it will try to maintain a considerable amount of political say. The fundamentals of Mubarak's police state remain in place, including the powerful security forces.
"We will have an elected president, but the military is still here and the old regime is not dismantled," said Ahmed Maher, a prominent activist from the group April 6, a key architect of last year's 18-day uprising against Mubarak.
"The pressure will continue," he said. "People have finally woken up. Whoever the next president is, we won't leave him alone."