Egyptians vote for president with political transition in turmoil

Egyptians are casting their final votes today and tomorrow for president. The runoff election comes just days after a court ruling dissolved parliament, increasing the power of the military.

Thomas Hartwell/AP
An election official hands out a ballot in Cairo, Egypt on Saturday. Egyptians are voting under a cloud of uncertainty after last week's high court ruling dissolving Parliament.

Egyptians went to the polls once more Saturday to finally decide, 16 months after ousting former President Hosni Mubarak, who will take his place: a former Air Force commander associated with Mubarak, or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The contest between Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, should have been the final act in the transfer of power from a military junta to a civilian government at the end of the month. Instead, it comes as the transition process has been dramatically upended by a court ruling Thursday that annulled the newly elected parliament, increasing the power of the military and raising the stakes in the presidential race – thus erasing the progress of the past year since protesters flooded into Tahrir Square.

Turnout appeared moderate Saturday as Egyptians made their choice. The Brotherhood, which suffered a deep blow with the dissolution of parliament, has cast Mr. Morsi as the only bastion against the military and the former regime. Meanwhile, Mr. Shafiq, who has promised stability and is not likely to challenge the military’s power, is considered by some the only hope against an Islamist state.

“We are not choosing a certain person. We are choosing a direction for the country,” said one voter as he waited to cast his ballot a Cairo neighborhood.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the group of generals that has ruled Egypt in the interim, will take legislative power from the dissolved parliament, and it is unclear whether the generals will pass it to the newly elected president or keep it until a new legislative body is elected. SCAF has indicated it will issue a decree defining the powers of the incoming president and possibly appointing a new body to write the constitution. That would replace an assembly elected by parliament Tuesday, which some parties had boycotted after complaining that the Muslim Brotherhood's party was attempting to dominate it.

By waiting until after the election to release the constitutional declaration, the generals are hedging their bets, and can decide how much power to give the president depending on who is elected.

Many voters said they approved the court’s decision to dissolve parliament, because they were unhappy with the performance of the Islamists who held about three-quarters of the seats. The court’s ruling was “very good, because the parliament was full of Brotherhood members,” said voter Walaa Nabeel. She voted for Shafiq because of his experience, and because his connection to the military means he will bring stability, she says. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, she said, “cannot be trusted.”

At the same polling station, voter Howyda Hashem said she voted for Morsi because he is honest and had nothing to do with the corrupt former regime, unlike Shafiq. “I chose Morsi not because he’s from the Muslim Brotherhood, but because he is not sharing in all the crimes of the bad regime,” she said.

Despite the high stakes, some voters chose to boycott or ruin their ballots, reflecting the polarizing nature of the candidates. In the first round of the election, several centrist candidates split the vote, allowing the extremes to make it to the runoff. Some Egyptians who oppose both the old regime and a role for Islam in politics decided to abstain rather than choose what they considered to be the lesser of two evils.

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