Voting begins in Egyptian election


Egyptians are voting today in the first free presidential election in their history that for many offers a choice of the lesser of two evils - a military man who served deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak or an Islamist who says he is running for God.

Reeling from a court order two days ago to dissolve a new parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many question whether the wealthy generals who pushed aside Mr Mubarak last year to appease the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring will honour a pledge to let civilians rule.

With neither a parliament nor a new constitution in place to define the president's powers, voting this weekend will not settle the matter, leaving 82 million Egyptians, foreign investors and allies in the United States and Europe unsure what kind of state the most populous Arab nation will be.

For those who preferred the secular centrists, leftists and moderate Islamists who lost in the first round, the two-man run-off leaves an unpalatable choice from the extremes.

Some of Egypt's 50 million eligible voters say they will despoil their ballots rather than back Ahmed Shafik (70), a former air force commander who was Mr Mubarak's last prime minister, or Mohammed Morsy (60) of the Brotherhood, the clandestine enemy of army rule for six decades.

But many were determined to make their voice heard. Queues formed early at some polling stations as they opened at 8am (0600 GMT) for the first of two days of voting. A result could be known as early as tomorrow night, after the second day's vote.

There are signs of exasperation with the Brotherhood's push for power on the back of a revolt driven in its early stages by the secular, urban middle class may limit Mr Morsy's ability to widen his appeal beyond the Brotherhood's disciplined ranks.

The Brotherhood had secure the biggest region in parliament that was elected in a vote that ended in January, and initially said they would not field a presidential candidate but then changed tack at the last minute.

The court ruling to dissolve parliament reverses those gain, and could help win some more sympathisers for the group.

Critics denounced the parliament ruling as a coup and compared it to the start of the Algerian civil war, when the military cancelled an election won by Islamists 20 years ago.

But the Brotherhood renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt decades ago and an Islamist uprising in the 1990s was put down by Mr Mubarak and his security forces, which have survived last year's revolt intact.

Although ordinary Egyptians are choosing their leader for the first time in a history that stretches back to pharaonic times, the euphoria that accompanied Mubarak's overthrow on February 11th, 2011 has given way to exhaustion and frustration after a messy and often violent transition overseen by army generals.

Hardline Islamist violence this month in Tunis, where the first Arab Spring uprising inspired Egyptians to emulate their North African neighbours, has also hardened fears of political Islam, notably among those dependent on tourism for a living, secular activists, women and the Egypt's Christians, who make up a tenth of the nation.

Both candidates have sought the centre ground, promising to rule in the spirit of the revolution: "It is not correct that the military council wants to rule through me," Mr Shafik said.

Mr Morsy, a last-minute choice for the Brotherhood after their preferred candidate was barred, has played down talk of a crackdown on beachwear and alcohol that would hurt tourism and steered away from confrontation with Israel after three decades of cool peace maintained during Mr Mubarak's military-backed rule.