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."
And the political turmoil is far from over. The military, which took power after Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11, 2011, has promised to hand over authority to the election winner by the end of June. But many fear it will try to maintain a considerable amount of political say. The fundamentals of Mubarak's police state remain in place — including the powerful security forces. The generals have said they have no preferred candidate, but they are widely thought to be favoring Shafiq, a former air force commander.
"We will have an elected president but the military is still here and the old regime is not dismantled," said Ahmed Maher, a prominent activist from the group April 6, a key architect of last year's 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak.
"But the pressure will continue. We won't sleep. People have finally woken up. Whoever the next president is, we won't leave him alone," he said outside a polling center in Cairo.
Moreover, the country must still write a new constitution. That was supposed to be done already, but was delayed after Islamists tried to dominate the constitution-writing panel, prompting a backlash that scuttled the process for the moment.
The Muslim Brotherhood is hoping a Morsi victory in the presidency will cap their political rise, after parliament elections last year gave them nearly half of the legislature's seats.
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, microbuses run by the Brotherhood ferried women supporters to the polls in the poor neighborhood of Abu Suleiman, one of the group's strongholds. The women, in conservative headscarves or covered head to toe in black robes and veils that hid their faces, filed into the station.
"I want to give the Brotherhood a chance to rule," said Aida Ibrahim, a veteran Brotherhood member who was helping voters find their station. "If it doesn't work, they will be held accountable," she said.
Some Brotherhood supporters cited the group's years of providing charity to the poor — including reduced-price meat, and free medical care. "Whoever fills the tummy gets the vote," said Naima Badawi, a housewife sitting on her doorstep watching voters in Abu Sir, one of the many farming villages near the Pyramids being sucked into Cairo's urban sprawl.
But some who backed the Brotherhood in the parliament election late last year have since been turned off. "They failed," said Mohammed Ali, in the neighboring Talbiya district. He's gone clear the other direction for this vote: "I am feloul" — pro-Mubarak "remnant," he said. "I don't care. I want a man who is a politician and statesman."
The secular young democracy activists who launched the anti-Mubarak uprising have been at a loss, with no solid candidate reflecting their views.
In Cairo, 27-year-old Ali Ragab said he was voting for a leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi — because the poor "should get a voice," but he admitted Sabahi didn't stand much of a chance.
He said his father and all his father's friends were backing Shafiq "because they think he's a military man who will bring back security. I'm afraid Shafiq would mean another Mubarak for 30 more years."
For most of his 29-year rule, Mubarak — like his predecessors — ran unopposed in yes-or-no referendums. Rampant fraud guaranteed ruling party victories in parliamentary elections. Even when, in 2005, Mubarak let challengers oppose him in elections, he ended up not only trouncing his liberal rival but jailing him.
The election comes less than two weeks before a court is due to issue its verdict on Mubarak, 84, who has been on trial on charges of complicity in the killing of some 900 protesters during the uprising against his rule. He also faced corruption charges, along with his two sons, one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa.
The feeling of being able to make a choice was overwhelming for some.
"I might die in a matter of months, so I came for my children, so they can live," a tearful Medhat Ibrahim, 58, who suffers from cancer, said as he waited to vote in a poor district south of Cairo. "We want to live better, like human beings."
More than four hours after the polls opened, there have been no reports of major violence or irregularities. Before dawn, a policeman in a police car parked outside a polling center in northern Cairo was killed by a stray bullet when a nearby argument over a taxi fare turned into a gunfight, according to security officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Policemen assigned to the protection of the center exchanged fire with the men, wounding and capturing one of them.
"You know, there is no such thing as a perfect election," U.S. Congressman David Dreier, of California, said while touring a polling center in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district. "But I'm convinced that there is a great degree of sincerity on the part of those that are putting this together."
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Alexandria, Egypt.