x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Egypt's joy as it casts its vote for democratic future

In Alexandria, "Who are you voting for?" has replaced the customary greetings in buses, cafes, and shops, with voters clearly versed in the merits and flaws of their chosen candidates.

An Egyptian woman ponders over her ballot paper in the country's first free presidential elections.
An Egyptian woman ponders over her ballot paper in the country's first free presidential elections.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT // Hisham Abdel Nasser, a business student, has lived under the rule of one Egyptian president for all of his 21 years.

Standing near a polling place in the neighbourhood of Karmouz yesterday, he expressed his excitement at what the country's first free election for a president would bring.

"Now, there will be a new president. He'll move Egypt forward," said Mr Abdel Nasser. "The revolution had to take place so this could happen."

Residents of Egypt's second largest city flooded the streets yesterday, lining up at polling stations for the first of two days of voting.

The election follows weeks of frenzied campaigning and non-stop, pervasive political discussions, both novelties in Egypt.

"Who are you voting for?" has replaced the customary greetings in buses, cafes, and shops, with voters clearly versed in the merits and flaws of their chosen candidates.

"This is an important, historical moment in Egyptian history," said Ahmed Tantawi, 45, an agricultural engineer. "It's the first time we've actually elected a president."

Thirteen men, from across the ideological spectrum, are competing in the first round of the election, that continues today, although only four are considered serious contenders. If no candidate receives a majority vote, a run-off ballot will be held for the top two finishers in mid-June.

Egyptians are particularly concerned about the economy and security, and much debate has focused on the future relationship between religion and state.

Enam Ashem, a Coptic Christian from Alexandria, said she voted for Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and prime minister under the deposed leader, Hosni Mubarak, because of what she called his liberal, tolerant attitudes.

"Leave religion to God, and the nation to the people," said Ms Ashem, 55, a social worker.

Copts are a minority in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, and many are concerned about the possibility of an Islamist president.

Today's election follows a protracted parliamentary vote from November to January, in which the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis won a majority of seats.

This time, many voters say they have tired of the Brotherhood's failing performance at parliament's helm, although there were signs in Alexandria and in Cairo that the movement's powerful get-out-the-vote efforts could pay dividends for its candidate, Mohammed Morsi.

"I chose Mohammed Morsi because he runs a good programme," said Mohammed Ibrahim El Desouki, 33, a web designer, who cast his ballot in Cairo's Sheikh Zayed district. "He's supported by a big organisation that has a great history in politics."

The Salafi Nour Party has endorsed Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a self-styled moderate Islamist. But that decision did not influence Mohamed Hussein, 37, a computer programmer sporting a bushy beard who said he was Salafi but not a Nour Party member.

Mr Morsi would receive his vote because he wants a candidate to implement Sharia, Mr Hussein said as he stood in the shade, waiting in line outside a polling station in the Cairo neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab. This would "create political transparency for the first time and bring God's blessings to Egypt".

In the lead-up to the vote, candidates advertised the symbols associated with their names on the ballots, which ranged from a horse and a pyramid to a ladder and a scale. The icons help illiterate Egyptians navigate the ballot, with the illiteracy rate estimated at about 30 per cent.

Amal Mohamed, a 39-year-old housewife casting her ballot for Mr Morsi, said this poll did not even compare with the parliamentary elections in 2010.

"There's a big difference between now and then," she said outside a polling place in El Seyouf, a working-class neighbourhood in Alexandria. "In 2010, state security forces attacked people here in Alexandria. Now, there's no violence."

Others expressed fear that vote-rigging would mar the election, or that the Brotherhood or "remnants" of the previous regime, known as "felool," would not accept the results.

Mohamed Yazeen, however, was clear on what he wanted from the new president. Standing outside an elementary school where he cast his vote, he pointed to a packed microbus speeding by, narrowly avoiding voters.

"There are 14 passengers in that microbus and just one driver," said Mr Yazeen, a 58 year-old retiree. "The man behind the wheel might not know how to drive well, and all the passengers might think they're better drivers, but at least the driver has a map and can get to his destination."

Egyptians need a man with a map, he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Bradley Hope and Ibrahim El Shakankiry in Cairo.