Egypt's fatigued voters trickled into polling stations on Saturday, taken aback by the rejection of their vote by the country's highest court that has dissolved an elected parliament and wary of choosing a President who could be either an Islamist or a member of the authoritarian old guard.
The two candidates in the fray are Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force officer who, for many, extends the legacy of the ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, under whom he served as Prime Minister, and Mohamed Morsy, a non-charismatic Islamist, who is likely to benefit from the organisational machinery of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he belongs.
Over the past 24 hours, a growing sense of despondency after the court's ruling has mingled with outrage that seems to have persuaded a large number of voters to de-legitimise the poll. No longer on the fringes, a movement to either actively boycott or invalidate the vote appears to have made a dent in some sections of the electorate, especially the educated youth. “I don't like Islamists and don't like feloul [the remnants of the Mubarak regime]. So I voted for nobody today, as did my friends,” says Mahmoud, 27, who works in a supermarket.
Activists who call themselves Mubteloon or “nullifiers” have led the rejectionist campaign. Bahaa Awad, one of the leaders of the movement, hoped that two million voters would be convinced to invalidate their vote, the website of the daily Egypt Independent reported.
Ghada Shahbender, an activist from the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, wants to scale an even more ambitious target of 10 million invalid votes.
That figures seems unrealistic. For, at the polling stations, people who wished to cast a valid vote did appear in perceptible numbers. The runoff was marked by a low turnout, but it was not a washout either, as some had anticipated.
At the heart of the relatively tepid response to the runoff was the disillusionment with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCATF), the increasingly powerful military group, which, some say, is fast turning Egypt into an unvarnished police state. A recent ruling has given the military wide latitude to carry out arbitrary arrests.
An advertisement on the state television, before it was taken off, cautioned people not to mingle with foreigners, who could be spies — a reflection of a perplexing, but growing, insularity of the post-Mubarak state, which needs to welcome foreign tourists to bolster its fast-depleting monetary reserves.
The tensions, born out of a heavy reliance on force, were evident on Saturday. Unlike the first round of voting, the atmosphere was palpably tense in and around polling booths, where soldiers, seemingly on edge, were openly discouraging journalists from filming, or engaging voters in conversation.
The reluctant voters were partly spurred into action by calls from such influential figures as Abdel Moniem Abul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist and a former candidate, who had broken ranks with the Muslim Brotherhood, but has now become a campaigner for Mr. Morsy's candidacy.
“Everyone had to choose between bad and worse,” he says, pointing out that it was his top-most priority to keep away from the presidency Ahmed Shafiq, a leading luminary of the old guard.
The hard-line Salafi Al Nour coalition is also actively supporting Mr. Morsy. Among the liberal youth, the April 6 Youth Movement, which spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolt, has also endorsed Mr. Morsy.
Even Hamdeen Sabbahi, a secular neo-Nasserite, who stood third in the first round of polling, has said it will a “moral crime” to support Mr. Shafiq — an expression of either tacit support for Mr. Morsy or a poll boycott.
On its part, Mr. Shafiq's campaign went into overdrive on Saturday, actively using social media tools, Twitter and Facebook, to urge supporters to head for polling booths.
According the Muslim Brotherhood's own estimates, their candidate should win comfortably by securing 75 per cent of the vote. But fears are also rife about rigging, though manipulation may count only in a tight race.
In the end, the results of the tense runoff are bound to animate the ongoing debate in Egypt on whether Thursday's “judicial coup,” crowned with Mr. Shafiq's possible elevation to the presidency, was a plot by the establishment to capture all organs of the State, or its purpose was to deny the monopolisation of power by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had dominated the dissolved parliament.