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Updated: June 12, 2012 15:29 IST

A mood of cautious optimism prevails in Egypt

Atul Aneja
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An Egyptian woman casts her vote inside a polling station in Cairo on Thursday. Photo:AP
An Egyptian woman casts her vote inside a polling station in Cairo on Thursday. Photo:AP

For the second day in a row of their presidential election, Egyptian voters headed for polling stations to re-engage through the ballot with remnants of the old guard pledging restoration of public order and a string of contestants who have been clamouring for fundamental change.

Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force officer and the last Prime Minister appointed by the ousted former President, Hosni Mubarak, has cast himself as a battle hardened strongmen who can take care of the chaos that has descended Egypt’s murky streets in the aftermath of last year’s uprising. Amr Moussa, a veteran diplomat whose career took wing during the Mubarak years, is also projecting himself as a seasoned leader who can pull derailed Egypt back on track.

However, during the course of the campaign, Mr. Shafiq has emerged as a highly polarising figure. The young protesters, who had been at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak rebellion, and who have now come out to vote in strength fear the commencement of an unprecedented crackdown, in case Mr. Shafiq triumphs in elections.

“There will be a second revolution if either Mr. Shafiq or Mr. Moussa is elected,” warned Mohamed Yahiyeh, a 23 year old, donning a brown Gelabeya—a traditional cloak cut out of single cloth, outside a polling station in Shobra, a middle-class neighbourhood in Cairo. In the faraway hometown city of Zagazig on the Nile Delta, Mohamed Morsy, the presidential candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood also warned after he had cast his vote that Egyptians would not accept anyone from Mr. Mubarak's "corrupt former regime."

The tremors generated by Mr. Shafiq’s candidacy became palpable on Wednesday, when he was confronted with a hail of shoes and stones as he entered a Cairo polling station to vote. "The coward is here. The criminal is here," the protesters shouted. "Down with military rule," some cried in reference to the campaign by his foes that, at heart, Mr. Shafiq is an integral part of Egypt’s military establishment.

Faced with the animosity shown by his detractors, Mr. Shafiq remained defiant, reiterating his message of liberating Egypt from the perceived collapse of governance in the post-Mubarak era. “In response to people who frighten voters about Ahmed Shafiq, I say that with God’s will I will put an end to chaos,” he asserted on Wednesday at a press conference. “I will help the country not turn into a bloodbath.”

Mr. Shafiq stressed that the motto of his campaign is, “security, security, security, whether people like it or not”.

Twice during the media conference, he was emphatic in calling for a “strong president”. Despite the steady stream of voting, which has picked up in bursts—first during the morning hours and then following sundown after the summer heat has abated---many Egyptians worry that the presidential elections are unlikely to end the gnawing political uncertainty that continues to grip their country.

Some analysts point out that a bizarre situation has arisen because a post-Mubarak constitution has not been written, leaving undefined, the full scope of presidential powers. “The constitution has been a point of contention since the fall of (Mr.) Mubarak. Many leading activists, to whom the constitution represents the key to the nature of governance, insisted that drafting a new document should be the first step towards establishing democratic rule,” wrote Sarah Housa in a column posted on the Al Jazeera website.

The obvious pitfalls notwithstanding, many voters have managed to muster a sense of cautious optimism regarding the polls. “We Egyptians have waited 60 years to freely vote for a new president. It is like a waking dream,” says Salma Gomma, a mother of three, as she prepared to poll in the Cairo’s Mohendesin neighbourhood.

Her sentiment was echoed among many, by Ahmed Al- Tayyeb, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, who described Wednesday as a “historic day.” Exercising his authority as the head of one of the oldest seats of Islamic learning, he asserted that it was forbidden for eligible voters not to cast their vote.

Egypt’s state-machinery also got into top gear to encourage polling. In Alexandria, the country’s second largest city, soldiers mounted jeeps, from where blared old patriotic songs, and sped along the roads exhorting people to poll. The Cabinet also got into the act by announcing a day-off on Thursday for state employees, in anticipation of a higher turnout. By afternoon on Thursday, the Supreme Electoral

Presidential Commission (SPEC) announced that voting would be extended to 9 p.m. to accommodate voters who are expected to turn up in larger numbers later in the evening.

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