Khalil Hamra, Associated Press
CAIRO — More than 15 months after autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak's ouster, Egyptians streamed to polling stations Wednesday to freely choose a president for the first time in generations. Waiting hours in line, some debated to the last minute over their vote in a historic election pitting old regime figures against ascending Islamists.
A sense of amazement at having a choice pervaded the crowds in line, along with fervent expectation over where a new leader will take a country that has been in turmoil ever since its ruler for nearly 30 years was toppled by mass protests.
Some backed Mubarak-era veterans, believing they can bring stability after months of rising crime, a crumbling economy and bloody riots. Others were horrified by the thought, believing the "feloul" — or "remnants" of the regime — will keep Egypt locked in dictatorship and thwart democracy.
Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, saw their chance to lead a country where they were repressed for decades and to implement their version of Islamic law. Their critics recoiled, fearing theocracy.
"You can't tell me, 'Vote for this or else you're a sinner!'" Wael Ramadan argued with another man in line at a polling station in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Basateen. "We never said that," protested the man. "Yes, you did," Ramadan shot back.
"The revolution changed a lot. Good things and bad things," Ramadan, a 40-year-old employee at a mobile phone company, said afterward. "The good thing is all this freedom. We are here and putting up with the trouble of waiting in line for electing a president. My vote matters. It is now a right ... Now we want a president that has a vision."
A field of 13 candidates is running in the voting Wednesday and Thursday. The two-day first run is not expected to produce an outright winner, so a runoff between the two top vote-getters will be held June 16-17. The winner will be announced June 21. Around 50 million people are eligible to vote.
An Islamist victory will likely mean a greater emphasis on religion in government. The Muslim Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament, says it won't mimic Saudi Arabia and force women to wear veils or implement harsh punishments like amputations. But it says it does want to implement a more moderate version of Islamic law, which liberals fear will mean limitations on many rights.
Many of the candidates have called for amendments in Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which remains deeply unpopular. None is likely to dump it, but a victory by any of the Islamist or leftist candidates in the race could mean strained ties with Israel and a stronger stance in support of the Palestinians in the peace process. The candidates from the Mubarak's regime — and, ironically, the Brotherhood, which has already held multiple talks with U.S. officials — are most likely to maintain the alliance with the United States.
The real election battle is between four front-runners.
The main Islamist contenders are Mohammed Morsi of the powerful Brotherhood and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians.
The two secular front-runners are both veterans of Mubarak's regime — former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and former foreign minister Amr Moussa.
The winner will face a monumental task. The economy has been sliding as the key tourism industry dried up — though it starting to inch back up. Crime has increased. Labor strikes have proliferated.
"May God help the new president," said Zaki Mohammed, a teacher in his 40s as he waited to vote in a district close to the Giza Pyramids. "There will be 82 million pairs of eyes watching him."
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