With the skies clear and the weather warm, long lines of people queued at polling stations to vote in an election cast as a watershed in their political history.
“Rise up, Egyptians,” proclaimed a full-page headline in the largest independent daily newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm. “ ‘Egypt of the revolution’ chooses today the first elected president for the ‘Second Republic.’ ”
In the run-up to the ballot, there have been no reliable opinion surveys, nor is there a permanent Constitution to set the president’s duties and powers. But the vote is widely seen as crucial in choosing a leader to influence Egypt’s course for decades to come.
About 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote, and four or five of the candidates are seen as plausible contenders.
Two candidates held positions under President Hosni Mubarak, deposed 15 months ago as the Arab Spring began to stir revolt in many parts of the Arab world — the former prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, and Amr Moussa, a former diplomat and elder statesman.
A fifth candidate is the Nasserite, Hamdeen Sabbahy, a poet-turned-populist who is campaigning as a political descendant of the leader of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The ballot represented a remarkable break with the traditions of the Mubarak era, when presidential elections simply confirmed the ruling elite in a land that for decades has been used to power exercised by presidents drawn from the military after centuries of highly centralized rule.
Since the fall of Mr. Mubarak, the military has continued to play a dominant role in steering the transition.
In a speech last week, the leader of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, promised to ensure a fair vote in the presidential election but also said the military would retain a “duty” to protect Egypt from domestic disturbances as well as to defend it against foreign threats.
The military has promised to relinquish power on July 1.
“With these elections, we will have completed the last step in the transitional period,” Maj. Gen. Mohamed el-Assar said at a news conference on the eve of voting, Reuters reported.Despite such assurances, many Egyptians suspect that the military, deeply embedded in the nation’s economic life, will maintain much influence.