CAIRO — In a wide-open race that will define the nation’s future political course, Egyptian voted Thursday on the second day of a landmark presidential election that will produce a successor to longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Voters lined up outside some polling centers, but the morning turnout was generally weaker than the previous day’s, when long lines formed outside polling centers more than an hour before they opened. The government has given employees Thursday off to bolster the turnout.
The two-day vote marked the end of decades of authoritarian rule, although concerns remained that the nation’s military rulers who took over after Mubarak would try to retain influence. Egyptians were hopeful as they waited patiently for their chance to cast a ballot in the Arab world’s first competitive presidential election.
“The revolution has won us the right to freely elect our president,” said housewife Doaa Nasr, referring to the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak’s 29-year regime 15 months ago.
“No one can now take this right away from us,” she said as she waited in line to vote in Cairo’s Zeitoun district.
There are 13 candidates in the race, including Islamists, liberals and former regime figures. No one is expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round Wednesday and Thursday, setting the stage for a run-off June 16-17 between the top two finishers. A winner will be announced June 21.
The generals who took control after Mubarak was ousted have promised to hand over power by July 1, repeatedly assuring critics that they have no wish to remain in charge. There are fears, however, that they could retain significant powers on matters of national security and key foreign policies.
The landmark election, considered the freest and fairest in Egypt’s history, is wide open. The reliability of polls is uncertain, and of the 13 candidates have bounced around the top spots, although none of them has emerged as a clear front-runner.
The two leading secular contenders are both veterans of Mubarak’s regime — former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and former foreign minister Amr Moussa. The main Islamist candidates are Mohammed Morsi of the powerful and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians.
Some voters are backing the Mubarak-era veterans, believing they can bring stability after months of rising crime, a crumbling economy and deadly street clashes under military rule. Others were horrified by the thought, believing the “feloul” — or “remnants” of the regime — will keep Egypt locked in dictatorship and thwart democracy.
Islamists have jumped into the political fray, seizing the chance to lead a country where they were repressed for decades. Led by the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists dominated parliamentary elections, winning nearly three-quarters of the seats. But the Islamists’ popularity has since waned as many Egyptians fear they seek to monopolize power and impose a theocracy.
An alternative to both the Islamists and the Mubarak-era candidates in the figure of leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, who has claimed the mantle of Egypt’s late president, the populist Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
An Islamist victory, particularly by Morsi, will likely mean a greater emphasis on religion in government. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament, says it won’t mimic Saudi Arabia and force women to wear veils or implement harsh punishments like amputations. But it says it does want to implement a more moderate version of Islamic law, which liberals fear will mean limitations on many rights.
As was the case in the weeks leading up to the election and on the vote’s opening day, the debate among the voters continued Thursday up till the last minute outside polling centers, something that points to the closeness of the race and the enthusiasm among Egyptians voting freely for their leader for the first time.
“I like the personality of Shafiq. He is strong enough to lift the country,” said Suheir Abdel-Moamen, one of several women standing in line waiting to vote in the middle class Cairo district of el-Zawiya al-Hamra.
Somaiya Imam, still undecided on who to vote for, replied with a reference to Islamist candidates, saying: “Don’t you think we should vote for the candidate who holds the Quran?”
“We voted for them before and they let us down. They want everything — the presidency, parliament and government. They are never satisfied,” Abdel-Moneim responded.
A woman standing behind the two chipped in: “But he (Shafiq) is a Mubarak’s associate.”
Shafiq, a former air force chief and Mubarak’s last prime minister until he too was forced out by protests, has been openly disparaging of the pro-democracy youth groups who led the uprising. Critics accuse him of being too cozy with the generals who took over from Mubarak, and question a reputation that is tainted by human rights abuses and authoritarian tendencies.
But with his strongman image, he has appealed to Egyptians who crave stability and fear Islamists.
Shafiq was met by several dozen protesters screaming “down with the feloul” as he arrived to vote in an upscale neighborhood east of Cairo on Wednesday afternoon. Some protesters showed their contempt by holding up their shoes in his direction. On his way out, some mobbed him, swinging their shoes at him as his security hustled him into his car.