CAIRO -- A tense Egypt began voting Saturday in the runoff to choose a new president amid a tightening military grip and fears that the result will not lift the nation from decades of authoritarian rule.
The choice is stark, if unsettling: Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi represents an untested political Islam and Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve fallen leader Hosni Mubarak, is an old-guard loyalist whose victory would repudiate the demands for change that fueled last year’s rebellion.
With so much uncertain about the country’s fate, turnout did not appear to be heavy in the early hours of voting Saturday. A constitutional court this week dissolved the Islamic-dominated parliament, no constitution has been drafted to outline presidential powers, and the army and police have intensified patrols and checkpoints across the capital and other cities.
"I am voting today for Morsi, but I know the results," said Dina El Garf, a young woman from the Cairo neighborhood of Dokki. She added that the military “will never let Morsi win. I know it will be the military's choice and that is Shafik. A lot of people did not come out to vote today for this reason."
Tunisia and Egypt led the revolutions that last year swept autocrats from power across the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia has had a relatively smooth transition to stability, but Egypt has been paralyzed by echoes from its past -- a ruling military that offered the veneer of democracy while retaining all meaningful power and sidelining young activists unable to forge a unifying political vision.
For some voters, the election seemed an eerie playback of the indifference that used to settle over voting lines during the repressive days under Mubarak.
"What the institution wants will happen," said Ahmed Hamdy, referring to the army-controlled interim government. "Both candidates are the wrong choice, but we know who is going to win. It is clear and voting is not going to change that."
Others were hopeful, even as they expected the prospect of dangerous days ahead.
"The result has to be in favor of the revolution," said Ahmed Bahnas, an engineering student grudgingly backing Morsi. "People who are supporting Morsi this time are doing it for the revolution. I believe if Shafik wins, it will mean that these elections were rigged. I'm one of the many people who will hit the streets if Shafik and the old regime come back."
Turnout was expected to be light. Voting ends Sunday and official results are expected early next week. The military has vowed to hand power to a civilian government by July 1, but many doubt that will happen given the ongoing political turmoil.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman and Reem Abdellatif
Photo: An Egyptian casts his vote in front of soldiers at a polling station in Zagazig, northeast of Cairo. Credit: Amr Nabil / Associated Press