Damanhour, Egypt – With the country’s politics in turmoil and increasingly polarised, Egyptians have voted in a presidential runoff that pits the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate against the last prime minister appointed by deposed president Hosni Mubarak.
Despite the high stakes, most observers reported low turnout throughout the country on Saturday, with a notable absence of voter queues. Egypt’s Lawyers Syndicate, in a statement, said the majority of polling places had not seen more than 15 per cent of registered voters come out.
Some speculated that the summer heat had kept voters away, while others said both campaigns were waiting to hear initial exit polls before ramping up their efforts on Sunday.
As in the first round, voting was extended by one hour, to 9pm, the electoral commission announced.
Though both campaigns complained of voting violations, including premarked ballots and rumours of disappearing ink, neither they nor the country’s Supreme Presidential Election Commission said the problems had amounted to widescale fraud.
Farouk Sultan, the head of the electoral commission, said in a press conference that both candidates had violated the law during the first day of voting.
“We observed more breaches committed by one campaign than the other,” he said, though he didn’t identify which one.
At stake in the two-day election is the loosely defined but crucial office of the presidency.
Since the January 2011 revolt ousted Mubarak after 30 years of rule marked by rigged and unfair elections, executive power has been held by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a group of generals who have presided over a transition that has increasingly veered off course, driving Egypt’s economy into a ditch.
The political chaos reached a climax on Thursday, when the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court ordered parliament dissolved, and the military council announced it would take over legislative powers and the drafting of a new constitution.
The day before, the justice ministry issued a decision giving the military power to arrest civilians.
The SCAF had previously pledged to give up power by the end of June, following the presidential election.
‘I see Mubarak’
The series of events, which a top Brotherhood official called a “fully fledged coup”, drastically raised the stakes in the contest between the Islamist movement’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, and his opponent, former air force lieutenant general Ahmed Shafiq.
Between the two sides lie more than 10 million people who voted for other candidates in the first round and may be decisive in the second. Many of them, dissatisfied with the both the secretive and conservative Brotherhood and the regime-tainted Shafiq, have vowed to boycott or spoil their ballots in protest.
Voters around the country on Saturday showed little sign of the energy or excitement that had marked earlier votes on the country’s interim constitution and parliament.
Instead, they voiced resignation at being forced to choose between the two men, as well as a fear that there will be protests and unrest no matter who wins.
“If Shafiq wins, there will be demonstrations, if Morsi wins, there will be demonstrations, at the end of the day, there will be a military coup,” said Mohammed Gharbani, a 30-year-old construction worker in Damanhour, in the Nile Delta. But he said he would vote for Morsi.
“I see Mubarak in the face of Shafiq,” he said.
Morsi received more than 222,000 votes from Egyptian expatriates earlier this month, compared to Shafiq’s 75,000, according to preliminary results. But it is hard to predict how either will fare in the runoff, especially since Shafiq received less than 10 per cent of the overseas vote in the first round yet nearly equalled Morsi, with about 25 per cent of the total.
With neither a parliament nor a new constitution in place to define the president’s powers, the outcome from the voting will still leave more than 82 million Egyptians, foreign investors and allies in the US and Europe unsure about what kind of state the most populous Arab state will be.
“I think that in the coming days, weeks, SCAF will issue what we call a supplementary constitutional declaration by which it will try to further specify the powers of the new president,” Mazen Hassan, a legal scholar at Cairo University, said.
Of the three prominent defeated candidates, only one, ex-Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, made an endorsement, backing Morsi.
The former Arab League chief Amr Moussa said he had voted for a “civil state”, implying Shafiq, while socialist Hamdeen Sabahi said he would not vote
Egypt’s activist pro-democracy April 6 movement also backed Morsi, reflecting an apparent decision among many in the amorphous pro-revolution constituency that the enemy of their enemy had become their friend, and the Brotherhood was the last force standing between them and a return to the oppressive style of Mubarak’s rule.
Both candidates turned out early to cast their own ballots.
Morsi voted in Zagazig, the Nile Delta city where he spent decades teaching, while Shafiq voted in the Cairo suburb of Tagammu al-Khamis.
Journalists at his polling station said he slipped in through a back door amidst heavy security; when he cast his vote in the first round, he was surrounded by an angry, shoe-throwing crowd.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, who visited polling stations in several Cairo neighbourhoods, tweeted that voters there overwhelmingly backed Shafiq.
He trailed Morsi in the capital in the first round, though it was Sabahi, the Nasserist candidate, who came in first with roughly one-third of the city’s votes.
In the coastal city of Alexandria, which also went for Sabahi, one young voter told Al Jazeera that she could not vote for a representative of the old regime.
“I want a president that can fix the educational system,” said Suhaila Nassar. “It should be provided for me here, as a citizen. I voted for Mohammed Morsi because he is not from the old regime … If I had voted for someone from the old regime, then the revolution would have been pointless.”
In Damanhour, a town of about 240,000 people in the heart of the mostly rural Beheira governorate, turnout appeared to be low throughout the day.
A steady flow of voters filed into polling stations in several neighbourhoods, but no queues were apparent. Morsi took first place in Beheira the first round, while Shafiq came in fifth.
Hosni Omar, a civil engineer and Muslim Brotherhood member who was observing polling stations for the Morsi campaign, said the Brotherhood estimated turnout in the Damanhour area had only reached 10 per cent by noon.
Omar said that the campaign had reported voting violations in various governorates, but none that amounted to widespread fraud or vote rigging.
Their colleagues in Alexandria had reported seeing a riot police vehicle carrying men in civilian clothes, but there was no proof they were transporting police to vote illegally, as many have worried might happen since the first round.
But he still predicted a “record” victory for Morsi. “Beheira has always been one of those anti-regime states,” he said.
Mohammed Ghonim, a roving poll monitor for Shafiq’s campaign, also said he had not seen any serious violations, though he accused the Brotherhood of conducting illegal campaigning.
Ghonim said he expected Shafiq to double the number of votes he received in Beheira in the first round thanks to a surge in influential local families who in the first round had sided with Sabahi or Moussa.
“These are the current circumstances of the Delta, including Beheira. It’s largely dependant on families and relations,” he said.
‘There weren’t any good choices’
Security forces including the army, navy and marines as well as interior ministry investigators and police guarded polling stations throughout the country.
The April 6 group reported that some of its activists had been arrested for trying to observe the vote and holding posters of slain protesters, while some journalists complained of harassment from poll guards as well as bystanders.
In Damanhour, a group of marines briefly stopped an Al Jazeera reporter, demanded his accreditation and passport, and told him conducting interviews on the street and outside polling stations was equivalent to “intelligence work”.
One soldier filmed the group as they questioned him. The commanding officer said they had been notified of a foreign journalist conducting interviews, then released him.
Judges overseeing the vote in the area described a smooth and uneventful process. In polling places, Al Jazeera witnessed them checking IDs and enforcing confidentiality. Some said they had received supplementary lists of names to be struck from the voter rolls on Friday, but only in small numbers.
Standing outside a polling station in central Damanhour, Abdelrahman Gomaa, a 23-year-old student, said he would vote for Shafiq, even if he was a member of the old regime, because he did not believe the Brotherhood was competent to run the country and did not trust the group after it broke its promise not to run a presidential candidate.
His friend Mohammed Montassir, a 21-year-old student at the Naval Academy in Alexandria, said he had voted for Sabahi in the first round but Shafiq in the runoff because he believed the Brotherhood were power-hungry and had hijacked the revolution.
By failing to unite, he said, the youth and revolutionary forces had lost their chance for a candidate.
“There weren’t any good choices,” he said.