CAIRO (AP) — Faced with a choice between Hosni Mubarak's ex-prime minister and an Islamist candidate, Egyptians entered their latest round of elections in an atmosphere of suspicion, resignation and worry, voting in a presidential runoff that will mean the difference between installing a remnant of the old regime and bringing Islam into government.
The race between Ahmed Shafiq, a career air force officer like Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, a U.S.-trained engineer, has deeply divided this mainly Muslim nation of some 82 million people 16 months after a stunning uprising by millions forced the authoritarian Mubarak to step down after 29 years in office.
Voters lined up outside polling centers an hour or more before they opened at 8 a.m. But turnout was not expected to exceed 50 percent, possibly because of voting fatigue. Since the ouster of Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011, Egyptians have voted several times — in a March 2011 referendum on a military-sponsored "constitutional declaration," in staggered, three-month parliamentary elections ending in February and in the first round of the presidential elections last month.
Some said they were voting against a candidate as much as for a favorite. With the fear of new authoritarianism in the future, some said they were choosing the one they believed would be easiest to eventually force out by protests. Unlike in previous post-Mubarak voting when Egyptians were confident the balloting would be free, many this time round said they suspected the weekend's election may be tampered with.
"I don't think Shafiq could win, I think he will win," said Nagwan Gamal, a 26-year-old engineering lecturer at Cairo University who was voting for Morsi.
"I think there will be corruption to ensure that he wins, but I think a lot of people will vote for him," she said at a polling center in the Cairo district of Manial.
There were no immediate reports of significant violations at the polls, which are being monitored by several international and local observer groups. But the suspicion expressed by many underscored a widespread belief that the ruling military wants to ensure a win by the president of its choosing. The military has said it does not back either candidate.
Shafiq, a self-confessed admirer and a longtime friend of Mubarak, has campaigned on a platform of a return to stability, something that resonated with many Egyptians frustrated and fatigued by more than a year of turmoil — from deadly street protests, a surge in crime, to a faltering economy and seemingly endless strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.
In contrast, Morsi marketed himself as a revolutionary who is fighting against the return of the old regime, promising guaranteed freedoms and an economic recovery, while softening his Islamist rhetoric in a bid to reassure liberals, minority Christians and women.
"The revolution was stolen from us," merchant Nabil Abdel-Fatah said as he waited in line outside a polling center in Cairo's working-class district of Imbaba. He said he planned to vote for Shafiq. "We can easily get rid of him if we want to, but not the Brotherhood, which will cling to power."
Brotherhood supporter Amin Sayed said he had planned to boycott the vote, but changed his mind after a court earlier this week dissolved parliament and allowed Shafiq to stay in the race.
"I came to vote for the Brotherhood and the revolution and to spite the military council," he said outside the same polling center in Imbaba, a stronghold of Islamists. "If Shafiq wins, we will return to the streets."
The two-day balloting will produce Egypt's first president since the ouster of Mubarak, now serving a life sentence for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising that toppled his regime.
The winner will be only the fifth president since the monarchy was overthrown nearly 60 years ago.
The election is supposed to be the last stop in a turbulent transition overseen by the military generals who took over from Mubarak. But whether they will genuinely surrender power by July 1 as they promised has been questioned all along, much more intensely since the military-backed government this week gave military police and intelligence agents the right to arrest civilians for a host of suspected crimes. Many saw the move as a de facto declaration of martial law.
On Thursday, judges appointed by the former president before he was toppled dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and ruled that Shafiq could stay in the race despite a legislation barring Mubarak regime figures from running for office.
The move robbed the Brotherhood, which dominated the legislature, from its pro-Mubarak gains and threw the entire transitional process into disarray. They also led to suspicions that the vote may be rigged in favor of Shafiq, widely seen as the general's favorite candidate.
The generals deny that charge, but without a parliament or a constitution, and with the right to arrest civilians, they will wield even greater powers going forward, with the future president, whether Morsi or Shafiq, likely to be beholden to them.
"By disbanding parliament, we returned to square one. We wasted a year and a half," 30-year-old contractor Mohammed Kamel said in the impoverished Cairo district of Warraq. "Ahead of us are four years of ambiguity ... We knew that the military council will never hand power because the generals have privileges they want to protect." Said Kamel, who crossed out the names of Morsi and Shafiq on his ballot paper.
Farouq Sultan, the constitutional court's chief judge, said in an interview published on Saturday that a "complementary constitutional declaration" will be issued to spell out the powers of the next president. He did not say who will issue the document, but the generals, as the country's collective presidency, are the only ones who have the authority to do so.
Already, numerous media reports say the generals would also take over the selection of a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution for the country.
The legislature, in which the Brotherhood controlled just under half of all seats, had led the selection of the panel, but charges that it packed it with Islamists led to its annulment by a court ruling. Another one selected earlier this week, also packed with Islamists, collapsed when parliament was dissolved.
Already, the generals have been blamed for mismanaging the transition and they stand accused of killing protesters, torturing detainees and hauling before military tribunals at least 12,000 civilians since January last year.
"We didn't have a revolution to topple a regime that made us live in poverty and didn't treat us like human beings so we can bring it back," said school teacher Mohammed Mustafa as he waited to vote in Cairo.
"We lost this country for 30 years, and we are not ready to lose it again," he added. "I have no doubt there will be fraud. If there is, I will return to the street to win back my dignity because I won't live as a slave anymore."