A first for Egypt

Nickalas Tabbert

Egyptians went to the polls Wednesday to vote for the country’s first freely elected leader in decades.

Voters waited in long lines outside polling stations across the country to cast ballots for Egypt’s fifth president since a military coup ousted the king in 1952 and its first to be chosen democratically, the Wall Street Journal said.

Voting takes place Wednesday and Thursday.  An outright winner from the field of 13 candidates is not expected to come from the first two-day run, so a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held June 16-17, The Associated Press said.

The final result is expected June 21.

“This is the first true democratic contest for president in the history of Egyptian life,” said Mohammed Morsi, a conservative of the Muslim Brotherhood.  He and Abel Moneim Abolfotoh, a relative liberal, represent the Islamist side.

Fotoh called the election “a historic moment Egypt has never before witnessed,” with people choosing “the first Egyptian president selected without oppression from anyone, without a military coup, and without foreign interference.”

Two other candidates, Ahmed Shafiq – the former prime minister – and Amr Moussa – the former foreign minister, both held positions under President Hosni Mubarak.

A fifth candidate is the Nasserite, Hamdeen Sabbahy, who is campaigning as a political descendent of the leader of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

There have been no reliable opinion surveys and there is no permanent constitution to set the president’s duties and powers, the New York Times said.  The country still has to write a new constitution, an act delayed after Islamists tried to dominate the constitution-writing panel.

The vote, however, is widely seen as crucial in choosing a leader to influence Egypt’s course for decades to come, the Times said.

Nearly 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote, and four or five of the candidates are seen as legitimate contenders.

An Islamist victory will likely mean a greater emphasis on religion in government, the AP said.  The Muslim Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament, said it will not mimic Saudi Arabia and force women to wear veils or implement harsh punishments like amputations.

Since Mubarak fell 15 months ago as the Arab Spring began to stir revolt, the military has played a dominant role in steering the transition.  It promised to hand over authority to the election winner by the end of June.  But many fear it will try to maintain a considerable amount of political influence.

“With these elections, we will have completed the last step in the transitional period,” Maj. Gen. Mohamed el-Assar told a news conference on the eve of voting, the Times said.

The winner will face a monumental task, the AP said.  The economy has been sliding as a result of the key tourism industry suffering, crime has increased and labor strikes have proliferated.

“May god help the new president,” said Zaki Mohammed, a teacher in his 40s who waited to vote in a district close to the Giza Pyramids.  “There will be 82 million pairs of eyes watching him.”