Egyptians Vote for First Post-Mubarak Leader in Election

Millions of Egyptians headed to the polls today in the first presidential election since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, a landmark race pitting rival Islamists against secularists after more than 15 months of turmoil.
Polls opened at 8 a.m., with lines forming long before at voting stations across the capital. The election has been billed as the freest and fairest in Egypt’s history, with the state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper’s banner headline reading: “Your Vote=Egypt’s Future.” In a country where Mubarak ran largely unopposed for three decades, the roughly 50 million eligible Egyptian voters have an unprecedented choice between 13 candidates.

Supporters of last year’s revolt and Mubarak-era ministers are competing in the election, which follows more than a year of instability and violence between security forces and protestors demanding an end to military rule. The fallout from the unrest created Egypt’s worst economic slowdown in at least a decade, prompting the government to apply for a $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan that has yet to materialize.
In the upscale district of Heliopolis, where Mubarak used to live, 18-year-old Saif Awad said that in a contest between religiously motivated candidates and those with ties to Mubarak- era governments, he favors the latter. “I don’t want to be ruled by Islamists, but I can live with those affiliated with the past regime,” he said. “They now know that there are red lines, and that people will revolt and protest if they cross them.”

Close Race

No clear favorite has emerged in opinion polls, raising the likelihood that after the first round ends tomorrow the two leading candidates will compete in run-offs on June 16 and 17, with final results to follow on June 21. The army council that took power after Mubarak’s fall has vowed to hand over power by the end of June.
A weekly survey published in the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper has put former Arab League chief Amre Moussa, who also served as foreign minister under Mubarak, in first place. Other polls have given the top spot to moderate Islamist and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh and to Ahmed Shafik, who served as Mubarak’s last premier. Another leading contender is Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate.
Egyptian telecommunication mogul Naguib Sawiris, a member of the Coptic Christian community that makes up an estimated 10 percent of the population, said he voted for Moussa.

Voters Divided

“The Christians are divided between Moussa and Shafik,” Sawiris said in a telephone interview.
The Brotherhood and many of the youths who led the anti- Mubarak uprising accuse Moussa and Shafik of seeking to revive the former regime. The two present their bids as a bulwark against political domination by Islamists and tout their years of experience. Moussa has said he would immediately use his international contacts to secure foreign funding for Egypt.
More than a year of political unrest has scared off investors. Foreign holdings of Egyptian treasury bills plunged 97 percent in the 14 months through February, to 1.64 billion Egyptian pounds ($272 million), according to central bank data.
The vote may not spell an end to political tensions, said Ashraf el-Sherif, adjunct lecturer in political science at the American University in Cairo.

Voting Choices

“If the winner is a candidate who believes in change, then he will run into the powers that have been dominating the system and the state apparatuses,” el-Sherif said. “If he wants to reproduce the old system then we’ll be back to square one and popular anger will continue.”
For Azza Kamel, 29, the choice boiled down to either Aboul- Fotouh or Mursi. In the end, Mursi was the natural choice, she said as she sat in a minibus featuring a portrait of the Brotherhood candidate on the back.
“We can’t afford divisions at such a time,” said Kamel, who was wearing the niqab, or Islamic face-veil. “We need to rally behind the one with the largest support base.”
Nearby, some Mursi supporters had set up a desk and laptops to help voters find out where they could cast their ballots. Ahmed Salem, one of the volunteers, said they were trying to help, not influence the vote.
The Brotherhood’s well-oiled campaign machine has worried secularists already concerned by the Islamist domination of parliament and what they see as a further attempt to monopolize power in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Election Monitors

“Vote rigging is a thing of the past,” Mursi told reporters in comments aired on Al-Arabiya satellite channel. “I hope I can live up to your expectations, the expectations of Egyptians at home and abroad to establish a state with freedom, democracy, constitution and stability.”
Information Minister Ahmed Anis told reporters he expected turnout of between 60 to 75 percent. It hasn’t yet reached those levels, with between 20 and 40 percent of registered voters casting ballots in some provinces, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said at the same news conference. Neither minister provided details.
The election has refocused the spotlight on Egypt, this time for something other than the violence that marked the 18- day uprising last year and left around 850 dead. Hundreds of monitors from scores of groups, including the Atlanta, Georgia- based Carter Center, were observing the vote.

Campaign Complaints

A coalition of Egyptian monitors noted that representatives of several candidates were campaigning near polling stations across the country, in an apparent violation of electoral laws, according to a statement posted on the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights’ website.
The election commission has referred complaints against Mursi, Aboul-Fotouh and Shafik to the public prosecutor on grounds of illegal campaigning, commission head Farouk Sultan told reporters.
The race comes a little over a week before a court will decide the fate of Mubarak in a case that has divided Egyptians. On streets once dominated by the face of the former president, the main candidates now peer down from banners strung from power poles and tree trunks and posters tacked to walls.
Heavy security ringed the thousands of polling stations around the country, with the military saying it had deployed 150,000 troops to ensure the vote went smoothly amid fears of outbreaks of violence that have contributed to the overall security concerns weighing on many voters.

‘Feel Safe’

In Heliopolis, Laila Naguib, 65, recalled how she had been mugged during broad daylight in December. The incident was representative to her of the decaying security which Egyptians have complained about in the past year.
Standing a few paces away from the polling station, she debated whether to vote for Moussa, Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi or Shafik. “I’m a Christian, and I need to feel safe,” she said. “This is my country. Where am I supposed to go?”
In Cairo’s sprawling Shoubra neighborhood, 51-year-old technician Mustafa Abdullah stood in line, waiting to cast his vote for Shafik. In the parliamentary elections months earlier, he had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which went on to win nearly half of the seats in the legislature’s lower hose.
“I’m going to steer clear of Islamists this time,” Abdullah said, adding that he had hoped they would help the country. “Instead, they ignored all the problems that mattered, and focused on achieving personal gains.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Mariam Fam in Cairo at mfam1@bloomberg.net. Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net