Millions of Egyptians cast ballots Wednesday in a historic presidential election pitting Islamists against secularists rooted in former leader Hosni Mubarak’s old guard. The vote is expected to produce the country’s first freely elected civilian leader after 60 years of military-backed dictatorship.
Lines outside of both urban and rural polling places stretched for hours in the morning, thinned in Egypt’s afternoon heat, and grew again in the evening.
Independent election monitors and the competing candidates said the poll appeared to be proceeding smoothly without serious or widespread irregularities. There were allegations of illegal campaigning outside polling stations.
Voting will stretch over two days and the government declared Thursday a holiday to encourage a high turnout. Preliminary first round results are not expected until Sunday.
In the runup to the election, Egypt’s unreliable polls fluctuated greatly, with four candidates bouncing around the top spots. Many Egyptians were still undecided even as they stood in line to vote.
The two secular front-runners are both veterans of Mr. Mubarak’s regime – former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and former foreign minister Amr Moussa.
The main Islamist contenders are Mohamed Morsi of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians.
As a dissident former Brotherhood leader, Aboul Fotouh has also won the backing of Egypt’s ultraconservative Salafis, whose candidates won a quarter of the votes in recent parliamentary elections.
Morsi entered the race late but has benefited from the Brotherhood’s powerful political machine. His victory would likely mean a greater emphasis on religion in government.
The Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament, says it will not mimic Saudi Arabia and force women to wear veils or implement harsh punishments like amputations. But it does want to implement a more moderate version of Islamic law, which liberals fear will mean limitations on many rights.
Aboul Fotouh argues that the Brotherhood should go back to its roots in preaching and charity and get out of party politics.
Both of their rivals, Moussa and Shafik, are campaigning as alternatives to Islamist domination, voices of experience and stability and the firm hands needed to blunt the lawlessness that has followed Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.
Shafik has the support of Egypt’s powerful military that has ruled the country in the 16 months since a popular revolt swept the former president from power.
A victory for one of the secularist candidates would mark a significant turn from parliamentary elections just six months ago when more than 70 percent of voters cast ballots for Islamist parties.
Whoever wins faces massive challenges – the economy has collapsed as the key tourism industry dried up, crime has increased and labor strikes have proliferated.
And political turmoil is far from over.
The council of generals has pledged to hand over power to civilian rule after the election, but many believe the military will remain a powerful force behind the scenes. In addition, the powers of the president have yet to be defined, since a political deadlock prevented the Islamist-dominated parliament from agreeing on a new constitution.
A runoff is scheduled for June 16-17 between the two top finishers. The winner will be announced June 21.