Egyptians across the country are preparing to vote for the first time in six decades in elections whose outcome is proving difficult to predict.
Twelve candidates are in the race for the presidency after a national uprising that saw the ouster of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
The 60 percent turnout of the parliamentary elections in November last year ushered in a government of long-suppressed Islamists including the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood during the Mubarak era, as well as the headstrong Salafis.
As the Islamists gain strength, Egypt’s Coptic Christians fear the discrimination they complained of during Mubarak’s reign will worsen if an Islamist secures the presidency.
“We need to separate religion from the State. The country must be under civilian rule where those who govern serve everyone’s interests. But religion must not interfere in the State,” said Olivia, a resident of Cairo’s Shubra district.
Since Mubarak’s ouster, many interfaith clashes have erupted in towns and villages, with the Copts blaming the highly conservative Salafists for a series of violent church attacks.
According to a senior Orthodox Coptic Church official, six million Copts are eligible to vote.
Analysts believe that in the unlikely event that Christians voted as a bloc, they could sway an unpredictable race to their favor.
Many Christians have declared their preference for former Mubarak foreign minister Amr Moussa or Mubarak’s former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.
Irrespective of religious beliefs, the one thing uniting Egyptians is their desire for the next president to address peoples’ basic needs. According to a World Bank report last year, nearly half of the country’s population lives under $2 a day, with local surveys reporting that 25 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.
A 76-year-old fisherman, Ibrahim, is hoping the next president will address the issues of the poor which have been shrugged off for decades.
“We need a good monthly pension. It should be raised so we have enough to live. Prices of foodstuff should be reduced; we are not able to survive,” he told Reuters.
The current ruling military council, which has been filling the power vacuum after Mubarak’s ouster, pledged on Tuesday to remain neutral in the preliminary elections.
“There will be no attempt to influence any citizen to vote for a specific candidate. We are not on any candidate's side… We have repeatedly said we have no stake [in this election],” said General Mohammed al-Assar.
Protests and violent clashes against the army’s transfer of power to civilian rule have been a common occurrence during the transitional period. The military council ensured a smooth transfer of power to the newly elected president.
“The security forces, whether the army or police, are determined that the elections are carried out safely, whether in terms of the electoral process or for those participating, like the judges and electoral employees,” said General Assar. “We will not permit any violations in safeguarding the polling stations, whether inside or outside,” he said.
Around 50 million of the country’s 82 million population is eligible to vote on Wednesday and Thursday and a possible run-off race is set for June 16 and 17.