Images of sparse crowds at polling stations, troops on edge, fearful of the camera or the recorder in the hands of foreign journalists, and reluctance among voters to engage in conversations seemed to suggest on Sunday that a refreshing phase of openness in Egyptian politics, which began with the fall of the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was fast coming to a close.

Instead, the culture of tolerance and debate that once set alight the Tahrir Square, the icon of the revolution, was giving way to a xenophobic mindset and ill-defined paranoia. “You will have to move at least 100 meters away and not film any of us if you wish to take a photograph,” warned a young army officer at a polling booth in the impoverished Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba. He was responding to a request for pictures.

Profiling of journalists

Foreign television crews returning from work cited several instances of the military quietly filming them as they conducted interviews with voters. The process of profiling journalists seemed to have commenced in earnest.

Inside a café outside a polling station at Shobra — a mainly Coptic Christian stronghold — people barely wished to engage in conversations about the presidential election which pitted Mohamed Morsy, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood, against Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era veteran. Mr. Shafiq wants a speedy restoration of “law and order” in chaotic Egypt.

Mr. Shafiq's emphasis on security has many among the ranks of the pro-democracy protesters worry that the former aviator's elevation to the presidency will mark a return to the authoritarian rule. Egypt has a rich history of that. Gamal Abdel Nasser's modernist military coup to dislodge an entrenched monarchy began military successions, of which the late Anwar Sadat and Mr. Mubarak were beneficiaries.

In the café, most people pulled hard at Shisha or water-pipes, finding more comfort in clouds of flavoured tobacco than in deliberations on the relative merits or otherwise of the candidacy of Mr. Morsy and his hard-fisted rival. Others, with black tea at hand, persisted with their game of chess, preferring their imaginary duel to a cerebral indulgence in the world of real politics. “They are scared and do not want to talk because they are being watched,” said Ahmed Heghazi, the restaurant owner, pointing to the battery of white uniformed policemen and the troops at the polling station across the road.

“It is clear that we are heading towards a police state,” he said, as a couple of women, with no queue to follow, strolled into the booth.

Across Egypt, a poor turnout seems to have been the norm. A pithy headline in the daily, Egypt Independent, summing up the unhappy situation, read: “In Minya, diesel queues are longer than election queues,” referring to polling in a central province.

Dismay at the dissolution of parliament on Thursday, which some called a “judicial coup” marshalled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the country's defacto rulers, and the adoption of a string of draconian measures, such as arbitrary arrests, seem to have dissuaded many from visiting polling stations.

With no reliable exit poll data available, the impact of the low turnout is hard to gauge. But some analysts feel that the decision by a large number of the pro-democracy youth to stay away could benefit Mr. Shafiq.

Said Sadek, Professor of Political Sociology at the American University of Cairo, said in an online comment: “The turnout among youth is low…because they are disappointed. Revolutions are never straightforward.”

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