Egyptians voted for a second day Sunday in a presidential runoff pitting Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister against a conservative Islamist, a contest overshadowed by questions of whether the ruling military will transfer power to civilian authority by July 1 as promised.
Going head-to-head in the runoff are Ahmed Shafiq, a longtime friend and admirer of Mubarak, and Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The winner will be officially announced on Thursday, but the result could be known by as early as Monday morning, based on not entirely reliable exit polls conducted by campaign workers or samples of votes counted across the nation.
The two-day balloting, which ends Sunday evening, followed a week of political drama in which the military slapped de facto martial law on the country and judges appointed by Mubarak before his ouster dissolved the freely elected, Islamist-dominated parliament.
The generals who took over from Mubarak 16 months ago are expected this week to spell out the powers of the new president and appoint a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution, moves that will further tighten the military's grip on the nation.
The race between Shafiq and Morsi has deeply divided the country, 16 months after a stunning uprising by millions forced the authoritarian Mubarak to step down after 29 years in office.
"I am bitter and I am filled with regret that I have to choose between two people I hate. I have to pick a bad candidate only to avoid the worse of the two," lamented a silver-haired pensioner in Cairo's crowded Bab el-Shariyah district. He refused to give his name, fearing retribution for speaking so openly.
"Nothing is going to be resolved and Egypt will not see stability," he added.
A similarly pessimistic note was echoed by another voter, accountant Yasser Gad, 45. "The country is heading to a disaster. It will keep boiling until it explodes. No one in the country wants the former regime to rule us again."
Few voters displayed an air of celebration visible in previous post-Mubarak elections. The prevailing mood was one of deep anxiety over the future - tinged with bitterness that their "revolution" had stalled, fears that no matter who wins, street protests will erupt again, or deep suspicion that the political system was being manipulated. Moreover, there was a sense of voting fatigue.
Egyptians have gone to the polls multiple times since Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11, 2011 - a referendum early last year, then three months of multi-round parliamentary elections that began in November, and the first round of presidential elections last month.
"It's a farce. I crossed out the names of the two candidates on my ballot paper and wrote `the revolution continues'," said architect Ahmed Saad el-Deen, in Cairo's Sayedah Zeinab district, a middle-class area that is home to the shrine of a revered Muslim saint.
"I can't vote for the one who killed my brother or the second one who danced on his dead body," he said, alluding to Shafiq's alleged role in the killing of protesters during last year's uprising and claims by revolutionaries that Morsi's Brotherhood rode the uprising to realize its own political goals.
Others said they were voting against a candidate as much as for one. Anti-Shafiq voters said they wanted to stop a figure they fear will perpetuate Mubarak's regime; anti-Morsi voters feared he would hand the country over to Brotherhood domination to turn it into an Islamic state. With the fear of a new authoritarianism, some said they picked the candidate they believed would be easiest to eventually force out of power.
Asmaa Fadil, a young woman who wears the Muslim veil, said she lost confidence in the political process, particularly after the dissolution of parliament.
"I don't trust the whole thing. I feel everything is planned in advance and what we are doing now is just part of the plan," she said as she waited in line to vote in Sayedah Zeinab.
The election is supposed to be the last stop in a turbulent transition overseen by the military generals. But even if they nominally hand over some powers to the winner, they will still hold the upper hand over the next president.
The generals are likely to issue an interim constitution defining the president's authority while they retain their hold on legislative powers, and they will likely appoint a panel to write the permanent constitution.
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