Egyptian soldiers stand guard as hundreds of people line up outside a polling… (Amr Nabil, Associated Press )
CAIRO — Seizing a moment in history they never imagined, the two old men walked arm in arm into a polling station on a day that was thoroughly and wonderfully Egyptian: Opinion polls were unreliable, intrigue was high, and there was a sense of destiny to rekindle the grandeur of the nation's ancient past.
But it was also unlike any other day in this troubled land that has veered from euphoria to disgust to resilience: The name Hosni Mubarak wasn't on the ballot, and the two men didn't already know the outcome when they walked into the polling booth in an election that was as thrilling as it was unpredictable.
"We've been humiliated enough," said Ahmed Ali Hussein, a retired textile merchant in a white tunic who leaned against his silver-haired friend as they voted Wednesday in the country's first free presidential election. "It's like we're in a new land with new men."
Egyptians began two days of balloting in a landmark contest between a stirring political Islam and a secularist vision embodied by men connected to the old regime. Their dreams were large, perhaps even impossible: a leader to end military rule, economic turmoil, rising crime and frustrations among many who think the revolutionary ideals that inspired rebellions across the Arab world have sputtered.
The top contenders were two Islamists and two officials from the Mubarak era. Muslim Brotherhood contender Mohamed Morsi battled Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh for the Islamist vote, while former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik challenged former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa for secular support. A dark-horse bid by nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi was expected to do well among liberals and leftists.
Lines stretched from polling stations in Alexandria, Cairo, Suez and across the vast southern deserts as Egyptians democratically expunged an autocracy most of the country's 82 million people were born into. The skies over the capital were clear, and umbrellas popped open to block the sun as voters waited to cast ballots amid soldiers and police.
"The whole Middle East is watching what we're doing today," said Shaaban Abdel Khalek, a worker in a water pump factory. "All the countries dreaming of democracy are watching. We dreamed once, but we were told we could never have it."
About 50 million Egyptians were eligible to vote. Results are expected May 29, and if no candidate wins more than 50%, a runoff will be held in mid-June. The voting was mostly quiet; a large turnout forced officials to keep polls open an extra hour.
Spirits were high in workshops and markets and along the Nile, where ferrymen hollered and boys unloaded piles of onions and cabbage as voters walked along the banks. The capital fluttered with campaign posters and traffic snarled at voting stations, but Egyptians waited patiently in lines that lengthened into the afternoon and early evening.
Ahmed Rashid cast his ballot and beamed.
"This is a great responsibility for every Egyptian," said Rashid, a stock clerk who traveled two hours to vote on Cairo's southern outskirts. "Each vote counts. This is the freedom we've been aspiring toward. I was so excited I nearly sunk all my finger into the ink after I voted. I never thought I'd get to vote for a man who was not Mubarak."
The 84-year-old toppled leader — on trial for conspiracy to commit murder — epitomized the Arab strongman who over the last 15 months has been upended by revolts in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen. Rebellions are still playing out in Syria and Bahrain. But the Middle East has slipped into a new, uncertain era as untested strands of political Islam compete with liberal forces to shape the fates of nations.
Egypt's new president will quickly confront global challenges, including repairing a strained relationship with Washington, deciding on Egypt's commitment to its peace treaty with Israel, reasserting Cairo as a player in an Arab world increasingly influenced by Persian Gulf states, and negotiating with Iran to ease deepening divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
But there is much mending to be done at home. The joy that followed Mubarak's overthrow has been soured by months of protests and bloodshed. Activists have criticized the military for being a thinly disguised extension of the old regime. It is unclear how much control the generals will cede and whether the new president will break from the past or be limited by an army that has been the country's shadow power since 1952.
The writing of a new constitution has been delayed and the military has signaled it may amend the existing one to expand its grip. That will draw political skirmishes with the next leader, who will also be tested by an Islamist-controlled parliament.