CAIRO — A surprising number of Egyptians shrugged off a major presidential election Sunday that will determine if their post-revolutionary nation is run by a former general associated with the old regime or a firebrand Islamist who wants to impose Shariah law.
Election officials said turnout was much lighter in the runoff election between Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force general and last prime minister under ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, and Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The crowds are much lower than in the first round. We don’t know how to explain it,” said Hatem Bagato, the secretary-general of Egypt’s electoral commission, as officials prepared to begin counting the ballots Sunday night.
Early Monday morning with about half the vote counted, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed victory, saying Mr. Morsi held a 55 percent to 45 percent advantage. “Mohammed Morsi is the first Egyptian president of the republic elected by the people,” the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm, posted on its official Twitter feed.
Sunday’s election opened with Egypt again in political tension. The country’s Supreme Court last week disbanded parliament, which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood members, allowing a transitional military to continue to govern. The court said the three-month parliamentary elections that began in November were illegal because political parties ran for seats reserved for independents.
Saad al Katatni, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed speaker of parliament, Sunday rejected the court ruling and pledged to defy the military council by convening a new legislative assembly.
However, later Sunday, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces decreed an interim constitution that would let the military continue its grip on state power. Announced on state TV, the document will give the military power over the budget, let it pick the drafters of a permanent constitution under which a new parliament could be elected, and let the council pass legislation in the meantime.
Meanwhile, voters went to the polls to cast ballots in an election that frequently split whole families, 17 months after Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after three decades in power. He was recently sentenced to life in prison for allowing Egyptian troops to kill anti-government demonstrators during an 18-day uprising that toppled his regime last year.
Just ahead of the court’s decisions, military police and intelligence agents were given extensive authority to arrest civilians for a wide scope of crimes.
Voters like Yasmine Rabie, a 25-year-old Nasr City resident, said the election has split her family.
“At home we’re divided,” she said. “It’s come to the point [where] we won’t talk about politics anymore.”
Others enthusiastically backed Mr. Morsi.
“He and the Brotherhood speak in an Islamic voice, and they talk about the kind of strong, religious country I want,” said Adel Mohamed, 31, a snack-bar chef who lives in Cairo.
Mr. Shafiq has based his campaign on the promise of restoring order and stability. Throughout a transitional period overseen by the military council, security has been largely ineffective in the streets. Crime rates are up, tourism is down, and political instability keeps investors away - worsening economic hardship.
Mr. Shafiq also draws a wide base of support from those who resist rule by Islamic law.
“Shafiq is the best man for this time,” said Bishoy George, a 23-year old Coptic Christian and computer engineer from Maadi in the southern part of Cairo.
“He knows how to restore security, and we need that for tourism and the economy,” Mr. George said. “That should be Egypt’s priority like it is for other countries [instead of] religion.”
Many others, like Mohamed Hassan Mursi, boycotted the election, complaining about the choice of the two candidates.
“It’s like someone is inviting you for lunch, and he offers you a dish that looks bad and another that smells worse. I’m choosing not to eat,” he said, sitting in a Cairo cafe.
Mr. Mursi, who also noted that his name is similar to the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, said people are voting in a “false game” and that the election process is “rigged from the start.”
“It’s impossible for Morsi to win, and I would actually feel scared if he did,” he said.