Egyptians return to the polls on day 2 of landmark vote
CAIRO (AFP) - Egyptians returned to the polls Thursday on the second day of a gripping presidential election in which candidates are pitting stability against the ideals of the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's rule.
"Before the revolution, I never voted, because it was not useful. Since then, I have voted in every election because it's my right and my duty," said Ahmed Badreddine, 37, in a polling station in Cairo's Giza neighbourhood.
Queues formed outside the voting centres after they opened at 8:00 am (0600) with authorities declaring Thursday a holiday to allow public sector employees to cast their ballots.
"We used to consider the president a knight who could solve all our problems, but we have to look at what kind of system we want, not just the person we want," said Ayman Saad 26, his finger stained purple from the indelible ink.
Turnout appeared to vary across the country, with long queues outside some polling stations, and scant participation in others.
And for the second day running the election commission decided to extend voting by one hour to 9:00 PM (1900 GMT) across the country.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said security forces had reported only "minor violations."
At a school in the upmarket Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis, with the dome of Mubarak's former presidential palace visible a few hundred metres (yards) away, hundreds of women braved the heat to stand in line to vote.
Noha Hamdy, 27, said it was a pleasant novelty to be voting in an election where the outcome is not predetermined.
"We go to an election not knowing who will win. I never voted before because the winner was always known in advance," she said. "This time I feel who I vote for, even if he doesn't win, will make a difference."
Around 50 million eligible voters are choosing among 12 candidates, with the front runners divided between Islamists who say they will champion the uprising's goals and Mubarak-era ministers.
On Wednesday, after a slow start, cooler evening temperatures and the end of the work day prompted a surge in voters.
Among the contenders is former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who is seen as an experienced politician and diplomat. But like Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, he is accused of ties with the old regime.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Mursi, faces competition from Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Islamist movement who portrays himself as a consensus choice with a wide range of support.
Two of the candidates are expected to go into June run-offs after the May 23 and 24 vote, with pollsters saying the number of undecided voters makes the result of the first round extremely difficult to predict.
The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.
"The big challenge for the president will be to attract foreign investors and boost tourism," to "restore the balance of payments" and "restore the reserve" currency in the central bank, which has dropped by half in the past year, said Mahmoud Abdel Fadil, an economics professor at Cairo University, told AFP.
To do that, the new president will have to "reestablish political stability and assure a level of total security. Confidence must be restored," Abdel Fadil said.
Pollsters say the many voters who are still undecided are likely to make up their minds at the last minute or be swayed by the candidate with the best network for mustering votes.
The election seals a tumultuous military-led transition from autocratic rule marked by political upheaval and bloodshed, but which also witnessed democratic parliamentary elections that saw Islamist groups score a crushing victory.
Ballot boxes from Wednesday were kept overnight in the stations after being sealed with wax by election commission officials and left under military and police protection.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in power since Mubarak's ouster, has vowed over to civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its withdrawal from politics will be just an illusion.
The army, with its vast and opaque economic power, wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.
Mubarak, 84 and ailing, is held in a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo where he awaits the verdict of his murder trial on June 2.
The former strongman is accused of involvement in the killing of some 850 protesters during the uprising and of corruption.