Egyptians facing a tough choice in picking a president
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CAIRO -- Egyptians on Saturday voted to choose between a conservative Islamist and Hosni Mubarak's ex-prime minister in a presidential runoff once billed as the country's long-awaited shift to democracy but now clouded by pessimism over the future.
Whoever wins after two days of voting, Egypt's military rulers will remain ultimately at the helm, a sign of how Egypt's revolution has gone astray 16 months after millions forced the authoritarian Mubarak to step down in the name of freedom.
"We are forced to make this choice. We hate them both," said Sayed Zeinhom at Cairo's Boulak el-Dakrour, a densely populated maze of narrow dirt alleys and shoddily built houses. Mahmoud el-Fiqi, waiting with him at a polling center, offered, "Egypt is confused."
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 the country after the stunning uprising that ousted Mubarak after 29 years in office, and left many disillusioned about the elections' legitimacy.
Many voters felt that the choice no longer even mattered after a court ruling this week effectively ensured that the military generals who have ruled since Mubarak's ouster will continue to be in power.
The generals took over legislative powers after Egypt's highest court on Thursday ordered the dissolution of the parliament elected just six months ago, and the military made a de facto declaration of martial law, despite earlier promises to hand over power to the new president by July 1. With no constitution or parliament, the president's powers are likely to be determined by a military with power to arrest civilians for crimes as minor as traffic obstruction.
To the activists behind the 18 days of mass protests that toppled Mubarak's regime, the election seemed a cruel joke, that crushed their dream of a new Egypt -- free, democratic and rid of all traces of the old system.
"The revolution will continue and restore the right of those who died in the uprising," said Ziad el-Oleimi, an iconic figure of the anti-Mubarak revolt in which nearly 900 protesters were killed. "This election is essentially for the selection of a new dictator."
In most polling stations observed by The Associated Press, voter turnout appeared light, with lines considerably shorter than in the first round of elections. There were no official turnout figures, and in districts known to be strongholds for both candidates, voters came out in force and braced the long waits and heat.
Few voters showed the sense of celebration visible in previous, post-Mubarak votes: anxiety prevailed. Some said they felt bitter that their "revolution" had stalled, feared that whoever wins protests will erupt, or were deeply suspicion that the political system was being manipulated.
Others said they were voting against a candidate as much as for a favorite. Anti-Shafiq voters said they wanted to stop a figure they fear will perpetuate Mubarak's regime; anti-Morsi voters feared he would hand the country over to Brotherhood domination to turn it into an Islamic state.
Many voters are angry at the Brotherhood, which was the big winner in the parliament elections, gaining nearly half the seats, but was later accused of trying to monopolize authority. After Thursday's court ruling, others were angered by what they saw as the military's power grab.
Mr. Shafiq, an 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 deadly street protests, a faltering economy and surging crime.
Mr. 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 balloting, which continues today, will produce Egypt's first president since the ouster of Mubarak,.
The election is supposed to be the last stop in a turbulent transition overseen by the military generals.
But days before the vote, the military-appointed government also gave military police and intelligence agents the right to arrest civilians for a host of suspected crimes, which many saw as a de facto declaration of martial law.
Using diplomatic language to convey Washington's concern about the latest developments, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta emphasized to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler, "the need to ensure a full and peaceful transition to democracy."
In their phone call Friday, Field Marshal Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years, confirmed the military's intention to transfer power to a democratically elected government by July 1, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
First Published June 17, 2012 12:04 am