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Egyptians Vote Their Hopes and Fears as Historic Free Election Kicks Off

The first post-revolutionary presidential election infused Cairo with excitement and anxiety.

Egyptian women line up to vote in the country's first presidential election since the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Photo Credit: Jared Malsin


CAIRO – A highly charged mix of emotions ran through Cairo May 23 as many of Egypt’s 52 million eligible voters went to the polls in the country’s historic post-revolution presidential election.

The majority of voters were excited. Wearing smiles, their fingers dipped in purple ink, they strode from polling stations, mainly located in schools throughout the country. As they exited, many phoned friends and relatives to tell them how they voted, or how long they had to wait. In every neighborhood, hundreds of campaign banners hung from apartment blocks and overpasses. Election chatter floated up from cafes and out the windows of minibuses.

Along with enthusiasm, anxiety permeated the city. The liberals feared a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose party is already dominant in parliament. The revolutionaries feared a regime retrenchment. And in a country with a history of rigged elections, more than a few worried that the ruling generals might tamper with the election.

In spite of widespread, but relatively minor election law violations, there was an odd calm in many Cairo neighborhoods. Men and women waited in long lines, some for hours in the midday sun, eager to select a president from a wide-open race with as many as five viable candidates. It was clear that this election was nothing like the fixed spectacles that had kept President Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years prior to his ouster in the winter 2011 revolution.

The voting took place in spare classrooms across the country. After presenting their national ID cards, voters received paper ballots printed with the names of the candidates, along with a symbol representing each one, to facilitate voting among the illiterate. Moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was represented by a horse, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, a sun. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was represented by the scales of justice.

Each polling station was overseen by a representative of the judiciary, who seemed to have absolute authority over proceedings in each local jurisdiction, along with observers from each party. Police and soldiers, some with assault rifles, stood guard outside each station. At one school in Cairo’s Giza neighborhood, dozens of women jostled with police after their entry to the poll was delayed.

Wednesday, May 23, was the first day of a two-day voting period in which voters can choose from 13 candidates. If no candidate wins more than half the votes, the top two candidates will proceed to a runoff slated for mid-June.

In the last several months, Egyptians also voted in a two-phase parliamentary election set up in the wake of the winter uprising.

Two Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour party, dominated the parliamentary vote. But the presidential race has been fiercely contested, with no one candidate emerging as a clear frontrunner.

The candidate who most clearly embodies the ideological scrambling of the current campaign is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood official running as a moderate independent. A medical doctor, he has assembled an unusual coalition, garnering the endorsement of the Salafis’ Nour Party, as well as those of prominent faces of the 2011 revolution, such as Google executive Wael Ghonim and leftist activist Wael Khalil.

While Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy has jumbled an already complex electoral calculus, it’s unclear if he can muster the votes to finish first or second. But many young members of the revolutionary camp see him as their best hope for a relatively progressive president.

One of those members was standing, reading his iPad while he waited to vote, in a line that wrapped around the wall of a local school in Cairo’s middle-class Mohandessin neighborhood. A graphic designer, Ahmed Fuad, 32, said he participated in the Tahrir Square uprising “from day one” and backed Aboul Fotouh because of his potential as a unifying figure. “A lot of liberals will vote for Aboul Fotouh, Salafis as well, maybe some young Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] will vote for him.”

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