CAIRO — Egyptians went to the polls Wednesday to choose their first freely elected president in a vote that could end 15 chaotic months of military rule and define the future of political Islam.
It was a new climax in a cascade of scenes that would have been unthinkable just two years ago, when Election Day meant that state television would film former President Hosni Mubarak walking a red carpet to his special polling place in a predictably fraudulent plebiscite.
But Wednesday, millions of Egyptians waited patiently in long lines, often holding scraps of cardboard against the desert sun, and debated with their neighbors over which of the five leading contenders most deserved their vote.
“It is like honey to my heart,’’ said Mohamed Mustafa Seif, 36, an accountant voting in downtown Cairo. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a role to play. My vote could possibly make a difference.’’
With a fluid and shifting field, no reliable polls, and a potential runoff next month, the outcome was impossible to predict. Two rival Islamists, two former Mubarak ministers, and a Nasserite socialist are all in the running.
“It is amazing; all the factions are represented,’’ said Rafik Yousseff, 52, an engineer and Christian who said he planned to vote for Amr Moussa, a secular-minded former foreign minister. Nevertheless, he said, he welcomed the Islamists participation.
“Rise up, Egyptians!’’ declared the headline of the largest privately owned newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm. “Egypt of the revolution today chooses the first elected president of the ‘Second Republic.’ ’’
Lines outside of polling places stretched for hours in the morning, thinned in the afternoon heat, and grew in the evening. Although there were sporadic allegations of campaign violations - young activists were caught distributing fliers attacking the former Mubarak-government candidates, and two police officers were arrested on suspicion of impermissibly supporting one of them - the vote was orderly and peaceful.
At a news conference, election authorities appeared in better control of the process than during recent parliamentary elections. In one case, they said, they dispatched four buses to resolve a polling place mix-up in a town in Upper Egypt.
For some, the experience of the presidential campaign was already a victory for democracy.
“It is enough that the new president will know he could go to jail if he does something wrong,’’ said Mohamed Maher, 28, at the poll place in Imbaba.
Among the many aspects of the race still shrouded in suspense is the description of the job the candidates are competing to fill. The council of generals that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster has pledged to turn over executive authority after the election. But because a political deadlock prevented the Islamist-dominated Parliament from empanelling a constitutional drafting committee as planned, the nation lacks a new charter to define the relative duties and powers of the president, Parliament, and the military.
Perhaps the most significant question in the first stage of the vote is the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old Islamist group that dominated parliamentary elections a few months ago. It is now locked in a struggle over its right to speak as the definitive voice of political Islam as its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, faces off against a dissident former Brotherhood leader, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, who is campaigning as a both an Islamist and a liberal.
The dark horse is Hamdeen Sabahi, a poet turned populist campaigning as a follower of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the Egyptian revolution of 1952. Sabahi is campaigning on vows to increase the government’s role in the economy, provide more subsidies to workers and farmers, and take a tough line against Israel. His campaign has caught fire among those looking for an alternative to the Islamists and the Mubarak-era holdovers.