CAIRO — Egyptians began voting Saturday for a new president, but the joy that defined the first round of elections last month had turned sullen, as if they were enduring the final betrayal of a revolution by a ruling military that has manipulated events from the wings for six decades.
The choice they face in two days of balloting is stark and unsettling: Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi represents an untested political Islam, and Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve toppled leader Hosni Mubarak, is an old-guard loyalist whose victory would repudiate the demands for change that fueled last year’s rebellion.
Temperatures were high and turnout was low, amid fear that the runoff would not bring them a new democracy to end months of political unrest and inspire an Arab world in upheaval. Much is uncertain about the country’s fate: A high court last week dissolved the Islamic-dominated parliament, no constitution has been drafted to outline presidential powers, and the army and police 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 said 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 revolts 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 stifled by echoes from the Mubarak era — a council of generals that for 17 months has allowed a veneer of democracy while retaining all meaningful power.
That dynamic was prevalent in Cairo, where government buildings stood ensconced in barricades and the helmets of riot police gleamed in the sun.
The day felt like an eerie playback of the indifference that used to settle over voting lines during the repressive days of Mubarak. Casting a ballot Saturday seemed an unenviable task for many frustrated by the polarizing choice between Morsi and Shafik. Neither man symbolizes the spirit of the uprising; their campaigns do not excite liberals, activists and progressive Islamists hoping for a rallying voice to rise from the “Arab Spring.”
“What the institution wants will happen,” said Ahmed Hamdy, referring to the army-appointed 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.”
Capitals from Washington to Jerusalem are following a race certain to reshape the intricacies of Middle East politics. A win by Shafik, a retired air force general, would probably serve American interests, especially regarding the status quo on the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. A Morsi presidency might complicate existing regional designs with a political Islam more attuned to Muslim passions, including advancing Palestinian rights.
The candidates are not towering figures, such as the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and are unlikely to inspire Arab governments rising from months of unrest. Egypt’s disarray leaves unclear what authority the next leader will inherit without a new constitution. But he will certainly be constricted by the whims of men in uniform, who are now not likely to hand power to a civilian government July 1 as promised.
Shafik would hew closer to the secular law-and-order line favored by the military. But Morsi, a religious conservative, would encounter an army that since independence in 1952 has backed a state that violently crushed attempts by Islamists to turn religious popularity into political clout. Morsi’s authority would be further denuded by last week’s disbanding of parliament, nearly 50% of which was controlled by the Brotherhood.
Both sides bused supporters to polling stations, and Morsi was hoping that anger over the court ruling on parliament would push Egyptians to vote for him in a protest against Shafik.
But low turnout suggested a boycott by a critical bloc of activists and socialist and liberal parties. Minor violations and scattered arrests were reported as at least 150,000 soldiers guarded voting centers.
Some who cast ballots were hopeful, even as they hinted 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.”
Hanan Morsi, no relation to the candidate, showed up to vote at an elementary school in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab. She walked down hallways past pictures of some of the more than 840 people killed in the uprising that ended Mubarak’s rule. The revolt brought many expectations but much about her life is the same, despite the slogans and flags that have drifted through the last year.
“We’ve suffered a lot. I want something to change. We want better living conditions for our children,” she said, adding that she is voting for Morsi. “He carries God’s book, and our youth can’t accept Shafik because he is too militarized. Hopefully, Morsi can right the wrongs in our country.”
Voting ends Sunday. Official results are expected early this week.