CAIRO -- In an historic first, Egyptians voted Wednesday for their next president, choosing from an array of competing candidates whose wildly divergent campaign platforms pledged everything from revolutionary, religion-based change to a return to the stability of the Hosni Mubarak-era, which came to an end with Mubaraks ouster last year.
As had been the case in the weeks leading up to the election, there was no sense of a frontrunner in interviews at the polling places. _ and hints that the results could be surprising.
In poor Cairo neighborhoods, where residents might be expected to pick Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, many voters instead said they had cast ballots for Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander who was Mubaraks last prime minister.
Afaf Mohammed, 45, who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood during parliamentary elections last year, was among those whod switched allegiances to Shafik. "Hell bring better security, she said.
Hamdeen Sabahi, who espouses the Arab nationalist philosophy of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a distant fourth, appeared to be the preference of many voters.
At a polling place in Luxor, in southern Egypt, 38-year-old Reham Abdel Gawad, wearing the all-encompassing black shroud of the most fundamentalist Islamists, said shed voted for Sabahi, a secularist, because she felt that he showed the most empathy for Egypts poor.
The veil is on my face, not my mind, she said, explaining her decision to break ranks. Not all Islamists are good for the country. The preacher is a preacher, and the politician is a politician.
Emotions were high among the thousands who formed long lines around schools that served as polling centers. Some said they could not believe they were choosing a president in a free and fair election after 30 years of living in fear and forced silence. Some tapped the plastic ballot box as they dropped their ballot in and said the beginning line of an Islamic prayer, before walking out of the room, with an inked forefinger indicating a vote.
Others expressed long-held rage. As Shafik left the polling center where he cast his ballot, voters pelted him with shoes.
Some saw the vote as the start of real reforms while others voted simply to be a part of the experience. I voted for Morsi. I dont know anything about him but everyone told me to vote for him, and at the mosque his fliers were everywhere, said Fouzah Ahmed, who could say only that he was over 70 years old because I lost count.
If there was a pattern in the balloting it was that younger voters appeared later at the polling stations. Officials extended voting hours from 8 to 9 p.m. to accommodate the late voters. In the Cairo district of Maadi, some people arriving after work stood in line for four hours to vote.
The only two candidates who engaged in a presidential debate during the two-month election cycle, Islamist moderate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, had cast their ballots by 11 a.m. Aboul Fotouh then went to a mosque and prayed.
Perhaps the most common question among voters was: Who do I vote for? Some asked it of election workers and observers as they tried to vote.
Others came prepared, pulling a piece of paper from their pocket with their selection written on it after they had a ballot in hand.