By FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither in Cairo
A stone’s throw from Tahrir Square, the walls of the buildings pockmarked from the bloody revolution have been patched over with candidate posters.
“This wouldn’t have happened without the revolution,” a young man told me, referring to Egypt’s first free presidential elections.
He explained that for the last 30 years they knew Hosni Mubarak would win but now the race for the President was wide open.
On the other side of town in a poor Cairo neighborhood the day had barely begun and there was already a chaotic crush of voters outside a polling center.
The men passionately debated in a disorderly line while they checked their names were registered on huge white sheets draped over cars and pinned to graffiti covered walls.
“These are the first free elections in Egypt in years,” voter Mahmoud said. I wasn’t surprised when he explained that choosing a candidate had been a tough decision.
But one thing these voters could all agree on were the issues driving them to the ballot boxes; fixing the county’s security problems and rebuilding the shattered economy.
“Most people are poor in Egypt, so if we have a good economy, security will follow,” Mahmoud added.
Over at a women’s polling center down the road, they put the men to shame with their neat lines and polite chatter. The separation of the sexes is a reminder of the socially conservative nature of Egypt’s mainly Muslim society.
However, segregation trickling into other public institutions was on many of the voter’s minds as they fanned themselves with ballot papers and adjusted their headscarves.
Women may have been at the forefront of the uprising last year, but they could face some serious setbacks under the Islamist dominated parliament. Now, there’s the possibility of an Islamist President as well.
Out of the 13 candidates, there are four clear front-runners: two Islamists and hangovers from Mubarak’s regime.
A glamorous housewife wearing a teal green headscarf told me she feared for her rights in the new Egypt.
“I’m a Muslim and I’m religious, but moderate. They are very strict and want us to go back to times we’ve left.”
In political terms, author and human rights activist Sahar el Gaara explained that women worked hard for the revolution, but they weren’t seeing the gains of it. There are only nine female lawmakers in Egypt’s new parliament, taking up only 2% of seats.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party now lead parliament, have been working underground for 60 years. They’ll tell you themselves that this sudden catapult to power took them by surprise.
Party member, Osma Lalila, brushed off accusations they’ll force strict laws on Egyptian society. “This is actually the propaganda of the old regime. We are more modern than anyone else,” he said.
Lalila added that when it comes to issues like Sharia law they won’t impose it if the Egyptian people don’t want it. As I left one of the party’s headquarters he chuckled to himself and shook his head at me, “You in the West think Sharia law means the Taliban”.
Just that morning, I’d met with former Congresswoman Jane Harman who was in Cairo observing the elections. She told me the U.S. shouldn’t be afraid of the Islamist candidates, and she welcomed the healthy debate Egyptians were having about the role of Islam in politics.
“The principles of Islam as part of this country are understandable. We have the 10 Commandments in the United States as principles,” she explained.
Throughout all of this I couldn’t help but wonder what choice that left the young people in Egypt, the so-called “Facebook Generation” that led the revolution last year.
Who would they pick? The front-runners offered them a choice of Islamists and the danger they might restrict their freedoms or former members of the Mubarak regime they fought with their lives to remove.
Egyptian political analyst Hala Mustafa explained to me there was no candidate who really represented the revolution in Egypt.
As the votes are counted in the coming days it’s not expected there’ll be a clear front-runner, producing a run-off between the top two next month. Following that, the country’s ruling military generals have pledged to hand over power to Egypt’s new leader on July 1st.
But after decades of military rule, many Egyptians remain skeptical they’ll hand over power without first striking a few deals behind closed doors.
In the end however, the most important part of this election process isn’t really about whether Egyptians chose an Islamist or secular President to unite them again. It’s whether the country’s first post-revolutionary leader is really seen as the genuine choice of the people.
Who that will be is still anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: If the revolution is threatened, many Egyptians vow they’ll return to Tahrir Square.
LISTEN to some of Emily Wither’s reporting from Cairo: