CAIRO — In a historic first, Egyptians voted Wednesday for their next president, choosing from an array of competing candidates whose wildly divergent campaign platforms pledged everything from revolutionary, religion-based change to a return to the stability of the Hosni Mubarak era, which came to an end with Mubarak's ouster last year.
As had been the case in the weeks leading up to the election, there was no sense of a frontrunner in interviews at the polling places — and hints that the results could be surprising.
In poor Cairo neighborhoods, where residents might be expected residents to pick Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, voters instead said they had cast ballots for Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander who was Mubarak's last prime minister.
While recent unscientific voter surveys published here had shown Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi a distant fourth, in some parts of the country, he appeared to be many voters' preference.
Emotions were high among the thousands who formed long lines around schools that served as polling centers. Some said they could not believe they were choosing a president in a free and fair election after 30 years of living in fear and forced silence. Some tapped the plastic ballot box as they dropped their ballot in and said the beginning line of an Islamic prayer, before walking out of the room, with an inked forefinger indicating a vote.
Their reasons for their selections ran the gamut. "I voted for Morsi. I don't know anything about him but everyone told me to vote for him, and at the mosque his fliers were everywhere," said Fouzah Ahmed, who could only say was simply over 70 years old because "I lost count."
Polls opened at 8 a.m. and the only two candidates that engaged in a presidential debate during the two-month election cycle — Islamist moderate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League — had cast their ballots by 11 a.m. Aboul Fotouh then went to a mosque and prayed.
Perhaps the most common question among voters was: Who do I vote for? Some asked it of election workers and observers as they tried to vote.
Others came prepared, pulling a piece of paper from their pocket with their selection written on it after they had a ballot in hand.
In one polling station, a woman was so exasperated when no one would tell her what to do, she simply folded up the blank ballot and dropped it in the box.
Where the parliamentary elections last fall were riddled with violations that included parties electioneering outside polling stations, Wednesday's voting seemed remarkably routine. There were allegations of various parties trying to reach voters at shops and sway their vote, and five election judges were forced out of their jobs in Sinai because they told voters how to vote.
More common violations appeared to be election workers misinterpreting how to apply the rules. Some didn't ask women in niqab to lift their veils and identify themselves to female workers until after they voted, for example. Disabled voters got various kinds of help, depending on the polling station. At times, observers and election workers would end up talking to voters, a violation, though the exchange often was only a greeting between people who knew one another.
Each polling station was a fiefdom for the judge in charge who determined how the rules should be applied. Some judges signed the back of every ballot while others simply handed the ballots out.
In the Cairo district of Maasara, a woman tried to tell her elderly illiterate mother how to vote, prompting election judge Ahmed AbdelHaffiz to angrily kick her out of the classroom that served as a polling station. "She is your mother at home, not here," he shouted at the distraught woman. "You have to yell at women so they understand" he explained later.
It was unclear whether voter turnout was high. Several judges told McClatchy Newspapers that a lack of judges forced the election to merge polling districts, creating large, frustrated crowds in some places.
There was no sign, however, of polling centers being overwhelmed.
According to election officials, more than 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote, including ousted former President Mubarak. It was unclear if he had cast a ballot, however.
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A mosaic of concerns shaped voters' decisions, from crime to rising unemployment to the role of Islam in the governance of the state to whether the uprising 15 months ago that led to the end of Mubarak's regime had benefited Egypt.
In Luxor, a southern city that boasts ancient temples and stunning Nile vistas, voters said their No. 1 concern was the lack of tourism since the revolution began. Voters there elected Muslim Brotherhood candidates for parliament last year, but many residents said they had grown disenchanted with the group's performance and nervous about any single bloc holding a monopoly on Egyptian political life, as Mubarak's regime enjoyed.
"For parliament, OK, but that's enough. The Brotherhood shouldn't control everything," said Mustafa Mohamed, 25, who runs hot-air balloon tours and voted for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member who was expelled from the group last year.
Mohamed said his business had declined 60 percent since Mubarak's resignation in February 2011.
Visiting reporters had to drive deep into the countryside to find a large, overt presence of Brotherhood support. In the hometown of a Brotherhood lawmaker, a village with 8,500 eligible voters, the group's Freedom and Justice Party was using five minibuses to ferry supporters to the polls.
"We're trying to mobilize the maximum number of our supporters so that our candidate, Mohammed Morsi, will make it to the runoff," said Abdel Hamid el-Senussi, a Muslim Brotherhood politician who won a seat in parliament representing Luxor.
El-Senussi said he understands the criticism of the Brotherhood's foray into politics, but insists that the lack of progress so far is because the group's platform was stymied by rival political forces who wanted to stunt the Islamists' popularity. If Morsi wins, he said, the president and Islamist-majority parliament would be in sync and thus able to enact real reforms.
"We have a triangle of horrors in Upper Egypt: illness, ignorance and poverty," el-Senussi said of his region. "We need hospitals, universities and factories."
In Cairo, telecommunications engineer Ahmed Ibrahim, 52, voted for Aboul Fotouh, calling him the least bad choice.
"My life is stable, but during this period of change, there are a lot of bad things happening," Ibrhahim said. Aboul Fotouh, he said, "is in the middle of what everyone wants. He is not a great candidate but the best available."
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Even as the ballots were being cast, government officials already had begin to urge voters to accept the outcome, which is not expected to be known for a week. Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar Uuniversity, Sunni Islam's premier religious institution, warned in a recorded message that was played on state radio stations that not voting was a sin. And the election committee officials and the ruling military council put out a message urging voters to accept the outcome.
Some Egyptians suspect the ruling military council will rig the election in favor of Shafik, a retired general, and some of those found near polling stations said they wouldn't vote because they had no faith in the process.
Egypt allowed only half the voting monitors it had permitted to observe parliamentary elections and only a handful of international observers. Despite that, former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center was given permission to monitor the election after first being told it could not, appeared at a Cairo polling station and said he was pleased with the process, calling it a "complete transformation."
Voting continues through Thursday.
(Youssef reported from Cairo, Allam from Luxor, Egypt. McClatchy special correspondents Amina Ismail in Cairo and Mohanned Sabry in Sinai contributed.)