Presidential run-off race polarises Egypt
- 16 June 2012
- From the section Middle East
Several men placed newspapers on their heads to shelter themselves from the harsh sun as they waited outside a polling station at a school in Shubra, northern Cairo.
The front-page headline of the privately owned al-Misri al-Yawm, read: "Egypt chooses a president today with no constitution or parliament."
Decisions by the Supreme Constitutional Court on Thursday resulted in the dissolution of parliament and added to confusion over the process for drawing up a new constitution that will define the next president's powers.
Yet voters in this large working-class district - unusual because Coptic Christians slightly outnumber Muslims - said they did not hesitate to come and cast their ballots.
While there were a few posters for the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Mursi, nearby, everyone who I spoke to was pleased that the latest judicial rulings also upheld the right of the former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, to continue in the presidential race.
He was seen as a bulwark against a rising Islamist tide.
"Shafiq is the liberal. I don't want a religious president. It's bad for Egypt," said a young man, Michael, who voted early on Saturday.
"We want security and a modern country," added another Christian and Shafiq supporter, Magdi Munir.
Despite criticisms of the ex-military man, he believed Mr Shafiq would preserve personal freedoms.
"I think Shafiq will keep his promises because he saw what happened to [the ousted President, Hosni] Mubarak," he commented.
Mohammed Abu Zaid agreed that Mr Shafiq was the best guarantor of "stability and a civil state".
He bought his argument that the Muslim Brotherhood was "reactionary" and would send Egypt back to "the dark ages".
"I'm a Muslim but I have many Christian friends. We leave our house keys with each other. This is the history of Shubra: we live in partnership and love. We want that to continue," Mr Abu Zaid said poetically.
The run-off for this presidential race has polarised the country, dividing those who want to keep religion out of politics from those who fear a return to the old regime.
In the poor district of Imbaba, the debate continued on the pavement outside the polling station.
As a voter wearing an Egypt pin praised Mr Shafiq's political experience and "leadership qualities", a tuk-tuk, or motorised rickshaw, zig-zagged past with its occupants leaning out shouting "Mursi, Mursi".
A crowd quickly assembled to discuss the pros and cons of the two presidential hopefuls, who finished in first and second place out of 13 candidates in the first round of the vote.
"Dr Mursi is God-fearing man and will respect the will of the people," said a bearded man, Hilal Mohammed.
"He has a scientific background. He studied in the US and can handle foreign relations. Moreover, he has an excellent agenda and the support of a group with a distinguished history."
A veiled woman, Nashwa Radwan said she would be happy with a president with an "Islamic background" and sees Mr Mursi as representing a fresh start.
"I would never vote for someone from the old regime which was corrupt and killed my Egyptian brothers and sisters," she declared.
The reference to last year's popular uprising is a powerful one. Many locals had first-hand experience of the events across the Nile in Tahrir Square, during the bloodiest days of the revolt.
"I was there, I saw people die in front of my eyes. I reject the 'faloul'" said Talaat Hassanin, using a phrase referring to remnants' of the old regime.
His friend, Mohammed Hussain, lifted his shirt to reveal a bullet wound scar.
"On 28 January I was working as a nurse in a field hospital. When I left to go home, I got shot in the back. I'll never forget the old regime's acts against peaceful protesters," he told me.
Egypt's revolutionaries arguably face the toughest choice in this election.
They helped the leftist, Hamdeen Sabahi, win the vote in the two biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, in last month's presidential election first round.
The independent Islamist candidate, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who also backed the 2011 revolt, and the former Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, finished behind Mr Sabahi in fourth and fifth place respectively.
Sharif Hassan, a young engineer, from the Nile island of Manial, said he had "conscience problems" but was voting for Mr Shafiq because of concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood's intentions.
"I joined the revolution for the full 18 days, I have hard-core pro-revolutionary friends but now I will vote for the anti-revolutionary candidate," he said.
In Nasser City, Ahmed Mustafa had concluded that his efforts to produce political change over the past 18 months had been in vain.
He was one of many Egyptians who are not likely to head to the polls even though the ruling military has declared two days of national holiday to bring out the vote.
Mr Mustafa planned to spend his time performing mundane tasks, servicing his car and heading to the shops.
"I am treating this like any other day off. I don't want to vote for a religious country governed by the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood or a military state headed by an ex-air force commander," he explained.
"We have two bad choices and an unclear future. We aspired to have a real democracy and a civil country and we failed."