Egyptians vote for Mubarak successor in historic poll
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
CAIRO, May 23: Egyptians voted Wednesday in the country´s first free presidential elections, with Islamists and secularists vying for power with competing visions of an Egypt liberated of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak´s iron grip.
Long queues of people, many in a festive mood, wound their way outside polling stations across the country throughout the day after polls opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT).
"It´s a beautiful day for Egypt," said Nehmedo Abdel Hadi, who was voting at the Omar Makram school in Cairo´s Shubra neighbourhood.
"Now I feel this is my country and I have dignity," said the 46-year-old woman, who wears a full-face veil.
Across the city, in the leafy Mohandesseen neighbourhood, Rania, wearing gym clothes and a ponytail under her baseball cap, was at the front of the line.
"It´s the first time in Egypt´s history we choose our president," she said, preferring to keep her choice "a secret between me and my ballot box."
More than 50 million eligible voters have been called to choose one of 12 candidates wrestling to succeed ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Voting over two days is taking place at 13,000 polling stations, with initial results expected on Sunday. Voting ends at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) on both days.
A senior interior ministry official said police were on standby across the country and helping soldiers secure polling stations.
The election marks the final phase of a tumultuous transition overseen by the ruling military council after Mubarak´s ouster in a popular uprising last year.
Pollsters say the large number of voters undecided between candidates reflecting radically different trends, and the novelty of a free presidential vote, make Wednesday´s election almost impossible to call.
Turnout in the scorching heat appeared lower than in parliamentary and senate elections last winter, but many voters will cast their ballots later in the day and on Thursday.
In the port city of Suez, one voter in a queue said the landmark election showed that Egypt was moving away from its authoritarian past.
"No matter who people vote for, this vote expresses a rejection of the old regime and shows Egyptians are ready for a new chapter," said the voter Ahmed Kilani, a lawyer in his 50s.
Leading contenders include former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who is seen as an experienced politician and diplomat but like Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak´s last prime minister, is accused of belonging to the old regime.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood´s candidate Mohammed Mursi faces competition from Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Islamist movement who portrays himself as a consensus choice with a wide range of support.
Despite an official ban on campaigning during the voting, the candidates have continued giving interviews to shore up their support and denounce rivals.
Shafiq told AFP in an interview that the country would face "huge problems" if an Islamist won and that he was the only one who could stop the fundamentalists from spreading their influence.
Faruq Sultan, the head of the electoral commission, told a news conference that the commission had referred reports of violations to the public prosecutor.
The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.
Islamist candidates have promised an Islamic-based project that has prompted fears among secularists and Egypt´s Coptic minority over personal freedoms and raised questions about the future of the country´s lucrative tourism industry.
Shafiq and Mussa have vowed to maintain stability and restore law and order but their ties to the old regime sparked fears of renewed protests by those who will feel their revolution threatened.
The election caps a rollercoaster transition, marked by political upheaval and bloodshed, but which also witnessed democratic parliamentary elections that saw Islamist groups score a crushing victory.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in power since Mubarak´s ouster, has urged Egyptians to turn out en masse to the polls, while warning against any "violation."
The SCAF has vowed to hand power to civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its retreat will be just an illusion.
The army, with its vast and opaque economic power, wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.
Mubarak, 84 and ailing, may watch the election from a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo as he awaits the verdict of his murder trial on June 2.
The former strongman is accused of involvement in the killing of some 850 protesters during the uprising and of corruption.