Egypt voters' 'loss of faith'

Voters arrive at a polling station to cast their votes during the second day of voting in Egypt's presidential election in Cairo June 17, 2012. Turnout has been lower in this election that in Egypt's other post-revolution polls

Polls have closed across Egypt, ticking another box in a troubled transition to civilian rule in a nation exhausted by the process.

For large parts of the second day of voting in the presidential run-off, polling stations were largely quiet.

Was it the soaring heat, rising disaffection or mounting anger among Egyptians who felt robbed of a real choice in having to opt for an Islamist, Mohammad Mursi, or Ahmed Shafiq, a member of the old regime?

At the Baheya Girls' School in Sayeda Zeinab district of Cairo, a gaggle of helmeted soldiers and white-uniformed police leaned on their metal barricades as they guarded the gates in the blazing heat of a Cairo summer.

"Its empty," shrugged one police officer as he crossed the street in search of some cold drinks.

Late in the day, as temperatures cooled, voting hours were extended and a trickle of voters turned into a small but steady stream. Latecomers ranged from young women in bright pink, women veiled in black, even a blind man supported by a wooden cane and his young son passed through the school gates.

"I love my country," said 52-year-old Hamdi as he left the polling station. "I'm tired of the last 30 years."

"Egyptians are tired of voting," remarked Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Centre in Doha.

After 29 days of voting over the past year, "Egyptians still haven't seen a tangible improvement in their lives," he said.

'Soft coup'

Last week's dissolution of the first freely elected parliament by the Supreme Constitutional Court added weight to that growing sense of "does my vote matter?"

The turnout in the constitutional referendum of March 2011, soon after the heady days of the revolution, seemed to have happened in a different country.

Maybe it did.

In less than two years, Egypt has moved from dictatorship to revolution and now a transition to an uncertain state. Many have called recent events, including the decisions of the Supreme Constitutional Court, "a soft coup".

There's a growing sense that Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) is reluctant to hand over its powers and privileges - although the military repeatedly denies that.

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In this runoff, some Egyptians seemed more excited by not voting, than voting ”

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A polarised country awaits news of its first freely elected president. This moment was meant to be one of the achievements of the extraordinary protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011.

"This should be a happy moment," said the veteran journalist and publisher Hisham Qassem, "but we've realised there's a hard road ahead. There isn't a fairytale ending."

Whoever wins will be a president with no job description, no parliament to swear oath, no constitution. The distorted political choreography reflects months of discord over how to move the new Egypt forward.

Would-be politicians like Nobel Laureate Mohammad ElBaradei opted out long ago, dismissing the transition as a travesty.

Egypt's new president will also face a people unable and unwilling to unite behind either of these two strongmen to get them through a mounting pile of day-to-day problems.

"This will be a big issue," reflected Rania al-Malky, editor of the new website Egyptian Monocle. "Whoever wins, there will be a backlash. We're back to worse than square one."

Spoiled ballots

The former prime minister and ex-air commander Ahmed Shafiq has presented himself as the candidate of law and order.

His message resonates with Egyptians weary of insecurity and uncertainty.

Ballot paper Faced with a Muslim Brotherhood candidate or an ex- regime figure, some have chosen to spoil their ballot

"We want a man with experience, we want stability," insisted entrepreneur Fady Ramzy.

"Please don't talk to me about experience," butted in Ahmed Sarhan, who spoiled his ballot in the first round and wouldn't even enter the polling station in the runoff. "For 60 years, we failed in everything. Old is not gold in Egypt."

"We want change," chimed in Hadeel Ahmed, a young headscarved medical student who voted for Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tour guide Ahmed Seddik, 32, agreed with her. "Ahmed Shafiq is a mini-Mubarak."

In this runoff, some Egyptians seemed more excited by not voting, than voting.

Young activist Noor Noor carried around a ribbon of bright yellow stickers with "Batel" (illegitimate) printed on it. This was the weapon of angry voters who planned to spoil their ballot.

"Now it's black and white," he said of the court ruling to dissolve the parliament. "Now we can really start our fight against the military."

If Ahmed Shafiq wins, he will have to prove his pledge that he is no longer part of the old order.

If Mohammad Mursi wins, he will have to prove that the Muslim Brotherhood's main priority is the Egyptian people, not their religious ideology.

"Either way, I expect turbulence," said Hisham Qassem.

And what of the historic Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution that changed Egypt?

"We thought Tahrir Square was the only place we can change everything," reflected Dalia Ziada of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Democratic Studies. "We should have thought about how to move from the square into decision-making spots."

"That's not the mistake of Scaf, not the mistake of Muslim Brotherhood, its our mistake," she said.

Toppling one leader was an historic moment, electing a new one is another.

The nation won't rally again as it did last year. But Egypt's new president will need to inspire that sense of purpose if Egypt is to truly change.

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