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Low turnout in Egypt for a presidential runoff tinged with fear

Egyptians returned to the polls Saturday to choose between two runoff candidates in what was supposed to be a buoyant state on the cusp of electing its president for the first time.

But the differences between the two candidates exposed a polarized populace, and a series of decisions by the ruling military council cast what was to be a celebratory day into one that many called a “game” and not real change.

Gone was the jubilation of last month, when Egyptians picked among 13 candidates in the first round of elections. Instead a patina of resignation and fear hung over the process Saturday as many said they believed that despite calling the events of the last 16 months a revolution, the state created by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak remains largely intact.

Earlier this week, the ruling military council announced that soldiers could arrest civilians for a broad range of violations, marking the return of martial law just weeks after a hated three-decade emergency law had expired. The next day, the Supreme Constitutional Court, made up of Mubarak appointees, dissolved the Parliament that had been elected last fall on the grounds that some of the lawmakers had campaigned in violation of election laws, a ruling that negated the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood party.

Although the uprising led to both Mubarak’s demise and this weekend’s election, the revolutionaries were left with no favored candidate. Voters chose between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. The ruling military council’s power loomed large: It appears they now are in charge of drafting laws, and a judge told the state-owned al Ahram newspaper that in the absence of a parliament, the new president would take the oath before the constitutional court.

“This is not in our hands. We have done what we can do,” said a man who only wanted to be identified as Rifat, 45, a factory worker, just after he voted for Morsi in Helwan, a poor community in southern Cairo.

“I’m worried. They said there would be democracy but nothing happened. I hope my vote will count, God willing.”

Election day appearances by the candidates suggested that one had the protection of the state while the other had the will of the people. Shafik was heavily guarded and snuck into his polling station through a side to avoid the attack of voters throwing shoes at him as happened last month. Morsi, on the other hand, stood in line like other voters.

Soraya Mahmoud, 62, burst into tears as she considered the prospect of Shafik winning. Mahmoud voted for Morsi in the poor Egyptian neighborhood of Dar Salaam in southeastern Cairo. The stench of trash piles forced some women to use their veils to cover their noses.

“God willing, I hope the SCAF will have the same fate as Mubarak. They want to bring back the regime. There is martial law now. What’s going on here?” Mahmoud said. “The blood of the martyrs will be in vain.”

In Cairo and the port city of Alexandria, the turnout as of midday appeared to be much lower than the first round. Where polling stations opened promptly at 8 a.m. last time, election workers on Saturday appeared more lax about setting up stations. At one station, poll workers only checked the identity of women in niqab after they dropped their ballots in the box. At another, a Shafik delegate, ostensibly there to monitor the process, instead took part in it, guiding voters to dip their finger in purple ink to confirm they voted.

Some violations were more serious.

The Shehab Center for Human Rights, a local NGO based in Alexandria, announced that Shafik supporters in several polling stations used what is locally known as the rotating ballot, a pre-filled ballot form handed to voters outside of the polling station. A popular tactic under the Mubarak regime, it typically promised voters money if they deposited the pre-filled ballot in the ballot box and handed the blank ballot back to the Shafik supporters outside.

Revolutionary parties grudgingly told their supporters to vote for Morsi. But millions of voters who wanted change became their own strategists in front of a ballot. Some who had voted for Nasserist and revolutionary favorite Hamdeen Sabahi, who captured more than 4 million votes in the first round, said they decided to vote for Shafik because if he did a bad job, they could go to the street. Stopping a seemingly power-hungry Muslim Brotherhood was much harder, they said.

Still others said that Egypt now needed a leader guided by Islam to end its economic and security problems. Either way, neither was a ringing endorsement of the candidates.

“I don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood anymore. It is very unfortunate that Morsi and Shafik are the only options now,” said Ahmed Karim, a 45 year-old government employee who once handed out posters of Sabahi in his western Alexandria neighborhood. This time, he decided to vote for Shafik in the runoff.

Yasser Gouda, 31, a print house worker in the largely Christian Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, said he voted for Shafik because he even though he served under Mubarak, he could not govern the same way anymore because of the uprising. Shubra, where many Christians fear living under the Brotherhood, was one of the few places that judges reported higher turnout.

“He won’t be able to govern like Hosni Mubarak did. If he does, he will know what his destiny is. It will be just like Hosni’s,” Gouda said. “I don’t think he will do this. He will do his best to get re-elected.”

Not all voters were dismayed. In the upper class neighborhood of Maadi, many voters said they welcomed both the dissolving of parliament and a potential President Shafik. The removal of Mubarak was enough change, they said, and change could only come about through a known quantity like Shafik.

“I’m happy that they dissolved Parliament. The Brotherhood had too much power,” Ragwa Ahmed Mohammed, 23, a secretary at a petrol company. “I am no with the revolutionaries at all. There has been enough change.”

Elections continue until Sunday. The president is slated to take the oath July 1.

(McClatchy special correspondents Mohannad Sabry in Alexandria, Egypt, and Amina Ismail in Cairo contributed to this report.)