Egyptians Vote in Contest Between Islamist, Mubarak Aide

Egyptians cast ballots for their first president since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year, in a runoff election widely portrayed as a choice between reviving the old regime and endorsing a new Islamist one.

The contest between Ahmed Shafik, who briefly served as Mubarak’s last premier, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, comes two days after the country’s highest court ordered the dissolution of parliament, where Islamists have a majority. That raised concerns among activists that the ruling military may engineer a return of the ousted regime.

Mursi “is the better of two bad options,” Gamal Abdel-Azim, a 49-year-old physician, said as he queued at a polling station in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City. “I was against Hosni Mubarak’s regime, so it doesn’t make sense for me to choose the return of the old regime in an even stronger way.”

While the first round of voting last month had been billed as the country’s first free and fair presidential election, the ruling generals and election officials have warned of stiff penalties for anyone who tries to rig or disrupt the vote. Several local and international groups, including the Carter Center, are observing the ballot.

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said authorities had received information some people planned to disguise themselves as police or military personnel to “carry out hostile acts,” the official Middle East News Agency reported today.

Vanishing Ink

Authorities arrested several people who were allegedly handing out pens to voters in Alexandria that contained vanishing ink, state television reported. MENA reported that only pens made available by the election commission can be used.

Many Egyptians have voiced unease about the two candidates, who were among the most divisive politicians to stand in the first round. Shafik and Mursi only garnered a combined total of about 50 percent of the vote last month. Ahead of this round, calls for a boycott mounted, leading officials and candidates to urge Egyptians to vote. Polling stations will stay open an extra hour, until 9 p.m., MENA reported.

The Brotherhood seized on the June 14 court rulings, which also included throwing out a law that would have driven Shafik from the race, as evidence of efforts to restore Mubarak’s regime. Both the group and youth activists described the decision, along with the military’s newly-granted powers to arrest civilians, as a “coup.”

‘Period of Silence’

The two-day vote “comes amid methodical attempts to thwart the Egyptian revolution,” Mursi’s campaign said in an e-mailed statement today, even though yesterday marked the start of the so-called “period of silence” that bans campaigning.

Activists had called for a mass rally yesterday to protest the rulings. The call drew only hundreds of people to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, instead of the tens of thousands who rallied during the uprising against Mubarak last year.

“We’ve had enough of protests and demonstrations and million-man marches,” Farah Mohsen, a 24-year-old mother of three, said in an interview in Dar el-Salam, a district in Cairo. “I don’t want the old regime, but I also don’t want this mess.” Mohsen, whose husband has struggled to find work for more than a year after being fired as a driver from a tour company, said she was voting for Shafik.

Brotherhood Support

Support for the Brotherhood, whose political arm won almost half the seats in Parliament’s lower house, has waned amid disputes between the party and the interim government, judiciary and military. The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported today that the Islamist-led legislature had passed 11 laws since winning power about six months ago.

“We’ve had enough of the Brotherhood’s games,” Baher el-Nahhas, a 37-year-old civil servant, said in an interview in Cairo, as he waited to cast his vote for Shafik. “This country needs leadership and progress, and all they’ve done is slow us down after the uprising.”

About 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote, with about half this number turning out in the first round that narrowed the candidate field down from 13 to the current two.

The court rulings have raised concerns that political turmoil will persist since the president will likely take office without a constitution that defines his powers.

Fitch Ratings yesterday cut Egypt’s foreign-currency debt by one step to B+, four levels below investment grade, citing “increased uncertainties surrounding the political transition” after the verdict. Foreign reserves dropped by more than half since the beginning of last year and a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund loan is yet to be approved.

Bond Losses

Egypt’s bonds extended losses yesterday and credit risk jumped the most in almost a month after the June 14 rulings. Five-year credit default swaps rose 22 basis points to 648, according to CMA, which is owned by GME Group Inc. and compiles data from the privately negotiated market.

Dina Darwish, a 23-year-old graphic designer, said she planned to invalidate her vote by marking both names on her ballot.

“Neither candidate is good,” Darwish, who supported socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi in the first round, said in an interview in Cairo. “The Muslim Brotherhood is not the solution, and voting for Shafik would be like going back to the very beginning.”

Election Pledges

Mursi cast himself as the “candidate of the revolution,” signaling he may appoint a Christian vice president, while trying to allay concerns that he would curtail individual freedoms. Shafik has run on pledges to restore law and order and keep Egypt secular. He sought to appeal to youth activists by promising that he would not censor the Internet.

The military has repeatedly said it is not backing any of the candidates, though the developments over the past few days raised suspicions among many voters.

“Is this a coincidence?” said Mohamed el-Haj, a 47-year-old shop clerk and Mursi supporter, referring to the timing of the court verdict and the handing of new powers to the military to arrest civilians. “The military has been staging a play all along and the final act is this election that will bring Shafik to power.”

-- With assistance from Ahmed A. Namatalla and Mariam Fam in Cairo. Editors: Ben Holland, Karl Maier, Digby Lidstone, Nasreen Seria.

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