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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.

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Whoever wins the election, he said, would face pressure for reform from the protest movement. The protesters, he said, “will never stop. Any result, with any president, they will create havoc for them. They will never go back to silence.”

Not everyone shared Fuad’s zeal for revolution. Several voters interviewed outside polling centers expressed support for Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force commander appointed prime minister by Mubarak at the height of the revolution. Shafiq, who served just one month as prime minister, is perceived as the candidate most closely allied with the old regime.

Much of Shafiq’s support is thought to come from Egyptians who sat out the 2011 uprising. One of those voters was Amr El-Bourtuqali, 48, a manager in a tourism company who lives in Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood. Although he said he did not support the revolution, he said he was thrilled to vote in an open election. “It’s the first time that I’m a human being,” he said.

Like most Shafiq supporters, El-Bourtuqali said he believed the former prime minister would bring about a restoration of security and a return of foreign investment. He worried about the Muslim Brotherhood consolidating power. “I don’t want all the power to be under the Muslim Brotherhood, now they have the parliament and I don’t think it will be okay if they get the presidency.”

Concerns about the balance of power were also a common theme among supporters of Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League who is running as a centrist in the election and who is favored by the West.

Derided by much of the left as a regime holdover, Moussa has attracted some support among those looking for stability and opposed to the Islamists.

Mahmoud Rifai, 72, a retired engineer who emerged from a polling center in Cairo’s Giza neighborhood, said he backed Moussa because, “He is a well balanced man, he is a politician, and he is not an extremist. And he has a good chance among moderate people.”

Asked why he opposed political Islam, he said he worried about curbs on personal freedoms. “My daughter is veiled, and she has the right to be veiled on her own, but not to be pressured by such groups. I myself don’t approve of the veil but it’s a democratic right,” he said.

Yet despite the skepticism from some corners, the Muslim Brotherhood is still one of the oldest and most cohesive political organizations in the country. The Brotherhood says it wants to unify the country through pragmatic politics. Their political machine is expected to produce a strong showing for their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, a former member of parliament whose unsmiling face peers down from his campaign posters.

Meanwhile, longtime socialist opposition activist Hamdeen Sabahi has emerged as a possible dark-horse contender, campaigning on his revolutionary credentials. Positioning himself as a champion of the poor, he has also laid claim to the aura of charismatic former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Outside a polling center in Giza, one of his supporters, recent college graduate Injie Ahmad, 21, said, “We feel that he could achieve exactly what the people want.”

Further to the left, prominent activist lawyer Khaled Ali has also attracted support among the revolutionary camp. However, he is thought to have little chance of winning.

Underneath the excitement and the jostling of the campaign, an undercurrent of political uncertainty remains. Egypt’s new constitution is still unwritten, meaning that the new president will step into a job without a description. The exact parameters of that job may also depend on the amount of power given up after the election by the ruling generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

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