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Where revolution began, Egyptians choose future on last day of divisive vote

Voters check a list of names at a polling station in Alexandria, Egypt, Saturday, June 16, 2012. Egyptians voted Saturday in the country's landmark presidential runoff, choosing between Hosni Mubarak's ex-prime minister and an Islamist candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood after a race that has deeply polarized the nation. The two-day balloting will produce Egypt's first president since a popular uprising last year ousted Mubarak, who is now serving a life sentence.

Manu Brabo/AP

Here, where Egypt's 25th of January Revolution began, the people are enormously proud of the role they played in establishing democracy in the country, regardless of who wins this weekend's presidential election.

It was on Jan. 25, last year, that protesters gathered on Square 40, the central boulevard that runs through the middle of the city's poorer commercial area.

(The square was named for 40 imams who came to Suez from across North Africa to preach against the slave labour then being used to dig the Suez Canal.)

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The protesters' target last year was the old cinder block and red brick-trimmed police station that had become infamous for the mistreatment of the regime's prisoners.

The mob stoned and firebombed the place, killing one policeman after police had violently tried to break up the demonstration, killing three protesters.

More than a year later, Egyptians head to the polls in a presidential runoff, faced with a choice between Ahmed Shafiq, a remnant of the old regime, and an Islamist future in the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.

Outside the still-gutted building, where people have taken to dumping their garbage, Mohamed Mahmoud, 20, sits on his motorcycle shaded from the 40 C heat.

He's very happy, he says, that events have turned out so well since that night last year.

"But, to tell you the truth, he adds, "we never even imagined that things we did would lead to so much."

"We were just fighting the injustice that was going on in there," he said, motioning to the burned out station.

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Mr. Mahmoud says he's voting for Mr. Morsi "because of everything that's happened recently," a reference to the renewed declaration of martial law this past week and the dissolution of the recently elected parliament by order of the country's constitutional court.

Like many young Egyptians, Mr. Mahmoud says he's worried the army and old guard under Hosni Mubarak are trying to take control of the country.

Interestingly, Mr. Mahmoud sheepishly admits that he voted for Ahmed Shafiq in the first round of presidential balloting last month. Gen. Shafiq, a retired Major-General, served as civil aviation minister for 10 years during the Mubarak era, and as the regime's last prime minister.

"I was mistaken, I admit it," Mr. Mahmoud says. "I miscalculated."

"We need Morsi to make sure the revolution continues."

At the tea shop two doors away, Gamal Gabr, 49, is finishing his coffee. The tip of the index finger on his right hand shows the indelible purple mark of someone who has just cast his ballot.

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"I'm not happy with what's been achieved," he says. "We thought we were uprooting the old regime, but we only took off its head."

"The rest of the system is still in place."

That's why he too is voting Morsi.

Mr. Gabr is not a big fan of the Muslim Brotherhood, he says, "but, as an organization, they have experience helping people and getting things done."

"And if they don't do what we want, then we can vote them out next time," he added. "That's the great thing about democracy."

"Don't be so sure of that," said Mohamed Moussa, 28, who was serving the customers. He wagged his finger in Mr. Gabr's face: "There's a lot of reason to fear what the Brotherhood will do if they come to power."

Mr. Moussa voted for Gen. Shafiq. "He'll do very good things for the economy," he said. Indeed, the former commander of the air force is running as a law-and-order candidate determined to restore confidence in Egypt's economy and return tourists to the country.

Across the street, at the local barber shop, Abdullah, who would not give his last name, held a razor to the throat of his customer Ali.

"I voted for Shafik," the barber said. "I want a man with experience as president. Morsi's done nothing. Until January 25 th , he wasn't even in politics."

Ali, holding Abdullah's arm back as he spoke, said he had voted for Mr. Morsi, an engineering professor, because he liked his program for economic development and because he's afraid of what Gen. Shafiq might do if elected.

"We don't want a return to the kind of regime we had before," he said.

Abdullah returned to giving Ali a close shave. The two men may disagree politically, but say they trust each other as people. "That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it," asked Abdullah.

A few blocks away a Christian woman left the polling station in her neighbourhood. She had voted for Gen. Shafiq, as almost all Christians are expected to do.

As a community, Christians, who number more than 10 per cent of the country's population of about 85 million, are very worried about the repercussions of an Islamic state, something the Muslim Brotherhood would eventually like to see established.

Despite assurances from the Brotherhood leadership, Christians say they think Gen. Shafiq is the one they can trust to enforce the law against discrimination. The candidate even has said he'd consider appointing a Christian woman as his vice-president, if he can find one who is qualified.

Suez, a fairly grungy port city with a lot of oil refining that clouds the air, has a reputation for feistiness, for being easily provoked. It's no surprise, people say, that it's the place where the revolution began. But as people go to the polls this weekend, and carry on with their normal lives, the mood is very positive and not confrontational.

"Just wait for about three days," said Mr. Moussa, who runs the tea shop, "when we know who has been elected. That's when the fighting will begin."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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