Egypt ushers in 'second republic'
Voters have gone to the polls to elect a president after the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule. But, as Ian Black reports from Cairo, doubts remain about Egypt’s future
It is not every day that the streets of Imbaba, one of Cairo’s poorest residential areas, buzz with the sort of excitement that was in the scorching air on Wednesday morning as queues formed outside the gates of the Gihad Secondary School serving as a polling station in Egypt’s landmark presidential election.
Under the gaze of armed soldiers, Mariham, a mother with a tired toddler splayed over her shoulder, was waiting to vote for Muhammad Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development party – one of the five leading contenders to replace the deposed Hosni Mubarak.
“I will be choosing Morsi because I like the Brotherhood’s nahda [renaissance] project,” the young woman volunteered without hesitation. “For 30 years there was never a reason to vote, but now there is. Even people who don’t read or write are out today.”
In nearby alleys lined with tiny shops and women selling vegetables on broken pavements, posters still advertised the Salafi sheikh whose disqualification from the race provoked rioting earlier this month.
Others promoted Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the Brotherhood renegade and independent Islamist who has been a frontrunner in recent polls.
Remnant of the old regime
But Bassam Mohsi, a local teacher and a Christian, who was standing near the separate queue for men, was going for a candidate at the other end of this country’s fragmented political spectrum: Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and the man opponents love to scorn as a fuloul, or remnant of the old regime.
Mohsi, also voting for the first time, backed Shafiq, who is popular with the Coptic community, “because he has no ideology”.
But he still expected an Islamist of some kind to win. “They are more active on the streets than anyone else and Egyptians believe more in religion than in reason,” he said.
Fifteen months after Mubarak was forced to step down in one of the most electrifying moments of the Arab Spring, this was the election that would usher in Egypt’s “second republic”.
Future contests for president will be genuinely competitive instead of the rigged charade that took place when the Pharaoh-like ruler brooked no real opposition.
Turnout in the first few hours was lower than expected across the country and, in some cases, lower than in the parliamentary elections. Queues were relatively short, not least because temperatures had suddenly soared into the mid-30s. But polling stations stayed open late into the evening and did so for another full day on Thursday.
Everywhere there was a sense of extraordinary novelty, even for those who confessed to having profound concerns about the future.
“I cannot believe we have come this far,” said publisher Hisham Kassem, backing former foreign minister Amr Moussa – ahead in many polls – as a safe pair of hands. “This was unthinkable 18 months ago.”
Mourad al-Badri, a computer engineer who went for the independent Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, also felt conscious of the weight of history. “Egypt has never held an election that was real in the sense that your vote made any difference,” he said.
In Rod al Farag, a poor area of the capital where a policeman was shot dead on Tuesday, a sixtysomething man with a potbelly – “just an ordinary citizen, one of 80-million Egyptians” – was hoping that “democracy in Egypt means that the majority will decide, just like it does every else in the world”. But he also admitted to having “doubts”.
Everywhere there were reminders of the price Egyptians had paid to bring about this change. In Abdeen, the Cairo district where King Farouk lived until his overthrow by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers in 1952, voters streamed into a polling station in the shadow of the wall of concrete blocks protecting the hated interior ministry from attack.
On the corner of Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution, images of “martyrs” stared down from every slogan-scarred wall. Nearby Muhammad Mahmoud Street had been renamed Ayoun al-Hurra (eyes of freedom), a grim tribute to protesters who were blinded when soldiers fired birdshot at them last year.
But the state was working hard to ensure that what was universally billed as a historic event went smoothly. From the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – due to hand power to the new president by the end of June – the message was that voting was a duty as well as a right.
The mufti of al-Azhar University, Egypt’s most important Muslim institution, made the same point. So did the official media: “Your vote = Egypt’s future” was the main headline in the state-owned daily newspaper al-Akhbar.
Security was tight and featured machine gun-toting soldiers, military policemen in red berets, Amn al-Markazi (central security services) officers in black uniforms and regular policemen in white-and-gold braid all deployed on the streets.
Free and fair
Judges overseeing polling stations were flown to remote areas by military aircraft. Monitors – including former United States president Jimmy Carter and his team – were on hand to ensure the process was free and fair, although Egyptian observers said some voters admitted to receiving cash and food gifts from the Shafiq and Morsi camps.
“It looks quite good,” said Radwa Darwish, of the Shayfeenkom election watchdog.
But not everyone was delighted. Diehard revolutionaries boycotted the election on the grounds that a free choice was not possible under military rule and without a new constitution to define the powers of the president. And some harked back to the old days. “The problem with these Third World countries is that you can’t have democracy,” said a middle-class woman who plans to move to the US. “There are just too many people who are poor and illiterate, so anyone who is educated ends up suffering.”
Long queues snaked under shady trees outside one polling station in Zamalek, the upper-class residential island between the two branches of the Nile. “I am a fuloul and proud of it,” said 60-year-old Hoda. “I want Shafiq or Moussa, but Morsi will win because of poverty and ignorance.”
Others reacted angrily. “I would rather vote for Morsi than Shafiq,” said Dina, a television employee, “even though I am totally against the Brotherhood and everything they stand for.”
Rasha, stylishly dressed and with her long hair uncovered (many other waiting women wore the hijab) was furious too. “We are only here today because of the revolution that the fuloul – and Shafiq is the worst of them – fought against. People gave their lives for us to be able to vote.
“Yes, I do worry about the Islamists and I care about being able to wear my bikini on the beach. But what matters is that people in Egypt can get vaccinated and be properly educated. If those things can happen then the future will be better for everyone.” – Additional reporting by Abdel-Rahman Hussein – © Guardian News & Media 2012.