Egyptians went to the polls today to choose their president for the first time in history, embarking on one of the most critical steps in Egypt’s transition to civilian government and democracy nearly 1-1/2 years after the revolution.
Voters flocked to polling stations throughout Cairo, with lines forming in many places as soon as the doors opened at 8 a.m. Many expressed hope that electing a civilian president would serve as a coda to the trying transition period and usher in a season in which Egyptians might begin to see the benefits, rather than the hardships, of the uprising.
In some districts, lines were shorter, and turnout appeared lower, than in the first round of parliamentary elections at the end of last year, when 59 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Many voters may be waiting to vote in the evening, when the soaring temperatures cool, or tomorrow. So far, voting seemed to be going smoothly across Egypt, where about 50 million people are eligible to cast ballots. No major violations or violence have been reported.
Unlike the festive atmosphere that sometimes prevailed during parliamentary elections, voters in some districts of Cairo today displayed a more determined air, aware of the critical nature of this election and perhaps remembering the sacrifices that made it possible.
The interim military council that took over from Mubarak agreed to hold elections by July after massive protests against military rule in November, during which dozens of protesters were killed in clashes with police. Many still worry that the military will retain behind-the-scenes power after the election, which has turned into a contest between newly empowered Islamists and candidates connected to the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who promise experience and stability.
Concerns about a religious state
“This is a good day, but the important thing is that we hope this will lead to more good days,” says Adel Mahrousi, a retired Ministry of Education employee who voted in the working-class district of Shubra. This election is the moment when Egypt will decide between two paths, he says. “The choice is between a democratic civil state, and a religious state.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party took nearly 50 percent of parliamentary seats, “failed in parliament,” he said. He is afraid that if the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi wins and the party controls all branches of government, Egypt’s foreign relations will deteriorate, and the situation will not improve internally.
He voted for Amr Moussa, a foreign minister under former president Hosni Mubarak who he says has the experience needed to pull Egypt out of chaos and instability.
“I want someone who can grasp the country from the first day, and bring it to peace and security,” he says. Mr. Moussa “is the best one in this period. Maybe after this, in the next election, there will be a better one.”
A vote for Islamists – unthinkable several years ago
But others see Mr. Morsi as the man who will lead Egypt to better days. “The presidency is a big responsibility,” says an elderly voter who gave his name as Ismail. “We want an Islamic president who can fulfill the needs of the people. One who doesn’t know Islam won’t know how to guide the country.”
Ismail says he could never have imagined, several years ago, that he would vote for a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for president. The group was repressed under Mubarak, who often jailed its leaders. Now both Morsi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Brotherhood who was expelled last year, both have a shot at the presidency.
In Zeitoun, a run-down, working-class district with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims, women debate which candidates to support as they stand in line. A voter who gives her name as Asmaa says she will vote for Morsi. She wears the niqab, a veil that covers the face, as she waits in line under the intense sun. Her most important criteria is which candidate would implement sharia, or Islamic law.
“Morsi is Islamic; he will implement sharia,” she says. Hagar, who stood in line next to her, said it was difficult to come to a decision, but she had recently decided she would also vote for Morsi. “He’s following God’s way,” she says.
Fouzia Atteya, standing in front of them both, butts in. “Don’t say that he’s God’s candidate!” she admonishes. “Each person should choose the candidate he considers the best. We all obey God. We should decide based on their programs.”
Nearby, Nagwa Abdel Meseeh, a Christian, stands under graffiti supporting Dr. Aboul Fotouh on the wall of the school-turned-polling station. Her priorities in choosing a candidate are security and peace. She plans to vote for Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister. She says he will restore stability to Egypt.
Inside the polling station, voting is calm and orderly. Voters receive a rectangular ballot with 13 candidates listed. Beside each name is the candidate’s symbol and his picture. The transparent ballot box, its lid secured by plastic ties, is about half full. After dropping their ballots in the box, voters dip a finger into a jar full of ink. A woman wearing the niqab and black gloves tugs off one glove to ink her finger – then holds it up, showing off the purple stain.