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In Egypt, voters went to the polls today to pick a new president to replace Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a revolution last year. Voters are casting ballots just a few days after that nation's highest court issued a ruling that dissolves Egypt's first freely elected parliament, which was dominated by Islamists. The latest election is a runoff between an Islamist engineer and Mubarak's last prime minister, the two top vote-getters in the first round of presidential polls held last month.
But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo, the contest is deeply dividing the country.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Turnout appeared low in many Cairo neighborhoods on the first day of the runoff. Voters are choosing between Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who like Mubarak, served in the Egyptian Air Force. Fewer young Egyptians appeared to be taking part than during the first round.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
NELSON: Some voters in the capital's upscale enclave of Zamalek say their ballot was less about the candidate they chose and more about making sure the other guy didn't win. The poll doesn't reflect the desire for democracy and a better life, which drove the January 25th revolution that ousted Mubarak, adds banker Iman Ismail.
IMAN ISMAIL: None of them are fulfilling any of the requirements that we had. I mean, why did we go out on the 25th in the first place?
NELSON: Others complained the election wasn't about what's best for Egyptians, but about the decades-old battle for power between Islamists and the military. In the Coptic Christian neighborhood known as Garbage City, which is famous for its trash collectors and recycling, voters lined up to cast their ballots for Shafiq.
BARAKAT MOSSAD: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Barakat Mossad explained his preference for Shafiq is that Morsi is an Islamist and that religion and politics don't mix. Voters who stood in line with him agreed.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
NELSON: The divide was also evident north of Cairo in the governorate of Sharqiya where Morsi and Shafiq were born.
MOHAMED GHALI: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Seventy-year-old farmer Mohamed Ghali says he voted for Shafiq because he believes he will keep the rich from taking his land and give him fertilizer to grow more crops.
But in nearby Zagazig where Morsi was born, 40-year-old Asmaa Abdel-Rahman argues it's the Brotherhood candidate who offers Egyptians the chance at a better life.
ASMAA ABDEL-RAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She calls Shafiq a tyrant who will bring back the old regime. The candidates, meanwhile, were more or less silent as Egyptian law forbids them from saying anything that could be perceived as campaigning. As Morsi waited to cast his ballot in his hometown, he engaged in pleasantries with an older voter also standing in line.
MOHAMMED MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: It was a far cry from his angry televised address earlier this week after the high constitutional court dissolved Egypt's first freely elected parliament. That body was dominated by Morsi's movement and other Islamists. The ruling generals have since taken over legislative powers and are expected to play a key role in drafting a new constitution. Analysts predict the generals will significantly weaken the power of the president if Morsi wins.
Some Egyptian youth groups say they are so disillusioned by both candidates that they organized boycotts of the runoff. Nevertheless, state-run media claimed turnout was high and that polling centers across Egypt stayed open an extra hour to accommodate people.
Republican Congressman David Dreier of California, who has monitored previous elections here, says he visited 25 busy polling stations today.
REPRESENTATIVE DAVID DREIER: This is the first time in 7,000 years this weekend, the people of the country will be choosing a president. They're doing it admittedly without a constitution, without a parliament, but this is an important step along the long road towards democracy.
NELSON: The runoff ends tomorrow with official results expected next week. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.