CAIRO (AP) — Faced with a choice between Hosni Mubarak's ex-prime minister and an Islamist candidate, Egyptians entered their latest round of elections in an atmosphere of suspicion, resignation and worry, voting in a presidential runoff that will mean the difference between installing a remnant of the old regime and bringing more Islam into government.
The race between Ahmed Shafiq, a career air force officer like Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, a U.S.-trained engineer, has deeply divided the country, 16 months after a stunning uprising by millions forced the authoritarian Mubarak to step down after 29 years in office.
The two-day vote is taking place under the shadow of political dramas over the past week that effectively mean the military generals who took power after Mubarak's ouster will continue to rule despite promises to hand over authority to the elected president by July 1. The generals took over legislative powers after Egypt's highest court on Thursday ordered the dissolution of the parliament elected just six months ago, and the military made a de facto declaration of martial law.
Using diplomatic language to convey Washington's concern about the latest development in longtime ally Egypt, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta underlined to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler, "the need to ensure a full and peaceful transition to democracy."
In their phone call Friday, Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years, confirmed the military's intention to transfer power to a democratically elected government by July 1, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
On Saturday, few voters showed the sense of celebration visible in previous votes. The prevailing mood was one of deep anxiety over the future — whether bitterness that their "revolution" had stalled, fears that whoever wins protests will erupt, or deep suspicion that the political system was being manipulated. Moreover, there was a sense of voting fatigue. Egyptians have gone to the polls multiple times since Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11, 2011 — a referendum early last year, then three months of multi-round parliamentary elections that began in November, and the first round of presidential elections last month.
"People are depressed, no one is happy after we returned to square one," Abu Bakr Said, a lawyer and a Morsi supporter, said referring to Thursday's court ruling, which wiped out the only elected body in the country.
"We have no confidence now in any election and I know that a second revolution is coming," he said as he waited in line outside a Cairo polling center.
Some said they were voting against a candidate as much as for a favorite. Anti-Shafiq voters said they wanted to stop a figure they fear will perpetuate Mubarak's regime; anti-Morsi voters feared he would hand the country over to Brotherhood domination to turn it into an Islamic state. With the fear of new authoritarianism in the future, some said they were choosing whoever they believed would be easiest to eventually force out.
Outside a polling center at the Cairo suburb of Shubra el-Kheima, Sameh Mohammed, declared: "I am not voting for either. They are all thieves and liars and cooperating with the military." Mohammed, who now washes cars after the factory where he worked closed following the revolution, lashed out at the military, but said he doesn't trust the Brotherhood either.
"They are all gambling with our lives," he said.
Unlike in ealier post-Mubarak votes when Egyptians were confident the balloting would be free, many this time said they expected tampering.
"I don't think Shafiq 'could' win, I think he will win," said Nagwan Gamal, a 26-year-old engineering lecturer at Cairo University who was voting for Morsi.
"I think there will be corruption to ensure that he wins, though I think a lot of people will vote for him," she said at a polling center in the Cairo district of Manial.
There were no immediate reports of significant violations at the polls, which are being monitored by several international and local observer groups. But the suspicion expressed by many underscored a widespread belief that the ruling military wants to ensure a win by the president of its choosing. The military has said it does not back either candidate.
Announcements by Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, in charge of police, only heightened the sense of paranoia and uncertainty. He told reporters that security agencies learned of a plot to carry out attacks on "vital installations" by individuals disguised as police or military. He also said that pens with ink that disappears after 30 minutes were being distributed to voters outside polling stations to use in marking their ballots. He didn't elaborate on who was passing them out or why.
The "pen" rumor spread quickly. At a polling center in the Cairo district of Shubra el-Kheima, the judge monitoring the ballots said the report was fake but that many in line now feared their vote would vanish. One woman wanted to take her ballot outside to wait to ensure her checkmark didn't disappear, said the judge, Mohammed el-Minshawi.
"I am hitting the ceiling. This is a dirty election game that aims to make people lose trust in the process," he said.
There were scuffles between supporters of the two candidates in the provinces of Assiut and Menoufia and as a handful of cases when the names of people who died were still on voters' lists and police and army conscripts voted in violation of a ban on service members from doing so. Three were wounded in exchange of fire in Gharbiya province
Shafiq, a self-confessed admirer and a longtime friend of Mubarak, has campaigned on a platform of a return to stability, something that resonated with many Egyptians frustrated and fatigued by more than a year of turmoil — from deadly street protests, a surge in crime, to a faltering economy and seemingly endless strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.
In contrast, Morsi marketed himself as a revolutionary who is fighting against the return of the old regime, promising guaranteed freedoms and an economic recovery, while softening his Islamist rhetoric in a bid to reassure liberals, minority Christians and women.
But multiple factors were playing on voters' minds. Some were angry at the Brotherhood, which was the big winner in the parliament elections, gaining nearly half the seats, but then faced a backlash from many who feel it then tried to monopolize authority for itself. After the past week's court ruling, others were angered by what they saw as the military's power grab.
"The revolution was stolen from us," merchant Nabil Abdel-Fatah said as he waited in line outside a polling center in Cairo's working-class district of Imbaba. He said he planned to vote for Shafiq. "We can easily get rid of him if we want to, but not the Brotherhood, which will cling to power."
Brotherhood supporter Amin Sayed said he had planned to boycott the vote, but changed his mind after the court ruling.
"I came to vote for the Brotherhood and the revolution and to spite the military council," he said in Imbaba, a stronghold of Islamists. "If Shafiq wins, we will return to the streets."
The balloting will produce Egypt's first president since the ouster of Mubarak, now serving a life sentence for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising that toppled his regime.
The winner will be only the fifth president since the monarchy was overthrown nearly 60 years ago.
The election is supposed to be the last stop in a turbulent transition overseen by the military generals. But even if they nominally hand over some powers to the winner, they will still hold the upper hand over the next president. The generals are likely to issue an interim constitutional declaration defining the president's powers, they will hold legislative powers, and they will likely appoint an assembly to write the permanent constitution.
Also last week, the military-appointed government gave military police and intelligence agents the right to arrest civilians for a host of suspected crimes. Many saw the move as a de facto declaration of martial law.
"By disbanding parliament, we returned to square one. We wasted a year and a half," 30-year-old contractor Mohammed Kamel said in the impoverished Cairo district of Warraq. "Ahead of us are four years of ambiguity ... We knew that the military council will never hand power because the generals have privileges they want to protect."
Kamel said he cast a purposely spoiled vote in protest, crossing out the names of both Morsi and Shafiq on his ballot.
Already, the generals have been blamed for mismanaging the transition and they stand accused of killing protesters, torturing detainees and hauling at least 12,000 civilians before military courts since January last year.
School teacher Mohammed Mustafa said he was voting to try to stop the return of the old regime.
"We lost this country for 30 years, and we are not ready to lose it again," he added. "I have no doubt there will be fraud. If there is, I will return to the street to win back my dignity because I won't live as a slave anymore."
AP correspondent Sara El Deeb contributed to this report.