Middle East

Presidential election polarizes Egyptian voters

Layla Marzuq, center, mother of Khaled Said, who died following police questioning before the Egyptian uprising, goes to cast her vote.

CAIRO: Egyptians, choosing their leader freely for the first time, voted for a second day Thursday in what appears to be a fraught contest between Islamists and former officials of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

After six decades under authoritarian, military-backed rule, Egypt’s 50 million voters may decide to entrust the most populous Arab nation to an Islamist president for the next four years, as well as the Islamist-led assembly they chose earlier.

But secular figures like ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa, 75, and Mubarak’s last premier Ahmed Shafiq, 70, are in with a chance, appealing to Egyptians wary of radical change.

With first-round voting almost over, Egyptians seemed increasingly polarized between those determined to avoid handing the presidency back to men linked to Mubarak’s era and those who fear Islamists could sweep governing institutions.

Some voiced fears of a backlash on the streets, particularly if Shafiq, who like Mubarak was an air force commander, triumphs – protesters hurled stones and shoes at Shafiq when he voted in Cairo Wednesday in the only notable election violence.

“If Shafiq or Moussa wins, they will create a revolution. Everyone will go down to Tahrir again,” said voter, Sherif Abdelaziz, 30, who backs the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi.

The mother of Khaled Said, the activist whose death in 2010 at the hands of police helped galvanize anti-Mubarak protests, also derided “feloul,” or remnants of the old order.

“Khaled died for his country. Youth like him are entitled to a better future. If any of the feloul win, it would be because the vote was rigged. Egyptians will never retreat from their revolution,” Said’s mother Leila told Reuters by telephone.

The strongest Islamist candidates are Mursi, 60, of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most influential political group, and ex-Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abol Fotouh, 60.

Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy, 57, is a dark horse in the race.

Some voters voice disappointment with the performance of parliament, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s party has the biggest bloc. The assembly has been unable to assert itself over the government appointed by the generals who took over from Mubarak.

Alarmed by rising crime, disorder and a failing economy, some Egyptians favor a man with government or military experience, even if he harks back to the Mubarak era.

Shafiq and Moussa exchanged angry allegations before polls closed.

“He [Shafiq] has started to use old methods, very bad methods, attacking the families of the candidates, my family specifically, spreading rumors that we have withdrawn and spreading rumors ... that are all lies,” Moussa told Reuters. “It is undemocratic ... so I call on him now to withdraw.”

Shafiq replied: “How can I pull out if all the voting centers say Amr Moussa is finished and ... has no chance?”

Voters queued patiently, determined not to miss their chance to influence the first round. The government declared Thursday a public holiday to allow state employees to cast their vote.

If no one wins more than half the votes needed for outright victory, the top two will contest a runoff on June 16 and 17. First-round results may be clear by Saturday, but an official announcement is not due until Tuesday.

According to election consultant Ossama Kamel, fewer abuses have occurred in this vote than in the parliamentary poll that ended in January, partly because of lessons learned then.

“We have seen a lot better control of campaigning on election day than during the parliamentary vote when there were lots of violations, with candidates and their supporters hustling people outside polling stations,” he told Reuters.

The vote marks a crucial stage in a turbulent army-led transition racked by protests, violence and political disputes. The generals who took charge when Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11, 2011, have pledged to hand over to the new president by July 1.

Even then the army, whose grip reaches deep into government and the economy, is likely to wield influence for years to come. A tussle over who should write the constitution also means the new president will not know his own powers when he is elected.

Egyptians accustomed to the forged votes of Mubarak’s era have relished the uncertainty of the election.

“This is the first time we can really choose our president and no one will mess with the result,” said Ahmad Shaltout, a 36-year-old lawyer who said he would vote for Mursi.

Explaining why he favored Moussa, Mohammad Salem, a shopkeeper near the Pyramids, said: “I want security and prosperity like before. We in the tourism sector were the most hurt. We could not count the number of tourists coming into our shops every day. Now we hardly need our fingers to count them.”

The next president will face huge tasks in reviving Egypt’s wilting economy and restoring security. The sprawling police force, which virtually collapsed during the anti-Mubarak revolt, is only a shadow of its once-feared presence.

Security is Shafiq’s strongest card. A former aviation minister, he was appointed prime minister days before Mubarak fell and quit soon afterward in response to popular protests.

He is also favored by many of Egypt’s 10 percent Christian minority, fearful of the rising power of Islamists.

“We all need a president who will curb the Islamist or any other non-moderate current in society. Shafiq can do this because he will be a powerful president,” said Samuel George, a Christian in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.

Mubarak, 84, is contemplating the spectacle of a free election from the upscale Cairo hospital where he is confined while on trial for ordering the killing of protesters and for corruption. A verdict is due on June 2, two weeks before any presidential runoff. A death sentence is possible but unlikely.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2012, on page 9.

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