CAIRO (Reuters) - For Egyptians worn down by a tumultuous military interregnum, the first opportunity to choose their leader freely looked as much like a poisoned chalice as a triumph of democracy.
They queued to vote in an election whose uncertain outcome breaks with five millennia of autocratic rule from the pharaohs to Hosni Mubarak, but many appeared vexed by the choice before them, with fear of the unknown muddying the waters.
“They confused us,” said Ali Helmy, 26, as he struggled to decide before stepping into a Cairo voting station on Wednesday.
“I think both Abol Fotouh and Moussa are good but when I say I’ll vote for Abol Fotouh, people say he is from the Brotherhood but hiding it. When I go for Moussa, I hear people say he is a remnant of the old regime. By God, I am tired.”
Relief at Mubarak’s overthrow last year after 30 years in power endures among Egyptians, most of whom have known no other leader. Many could barely hide their emotion at voting and some called it a “miracle” and a “dream”.
But hope has long faded that democracy can bring a quick end to poverty, injustice and failing government.
The winner of the vote, likely to require a run-off between the top two candidates in June, may not know the extent of his powers for months due to a constitutional deadlock.
Green shoots in the flailing economy may not stave off a balance of payments crisis without help from foreign donors - and a political stand-off has delayed most outside aid.
State institutions weakened to irrelevance by Mubarak are creaking in the new era of political freedom as Islamists tussle with liberals and those nostalgic for the Mubarak era.
Voters were happy to know their ballots counted at last, but many seemed more intent on blocking candidates they saw as threats rather than endorsing any who embodied their hopes.
“I want my freedom before anything else. I am coming here to vote for anyone but Mursi,” said a woman without a headscarf, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi.
Mohamed Afifi, 53, a teacher in the farming village of Shiba outside Zagazig in the Nile Delta, wanted to keep out the two main secular contenders, Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa. “I am voting first and foremost against those two,” he said.
Turnout on the first day seemed smaller than during a parliamentary vote that took place between November and January and produced an assembly dominated by Islamists who have feuded ever since with the army-backed government.
“Islamists scared the people,” said Mahmoud Magdy, 36. “They did nothing after they got the parliament and so we don’t know what they would do if they got everything. That’s why many of their voters don’t know what to do.”
For some voters, Moussa, a liberal nationalist and former foreign minister, looked best able to reconcile Egypt’s political forces enough to create an effective government.
Others picked Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who has wooed both ultraconservative Salafis and liberals since being expelled from the Brotherhood for launching a presidency bid.
But no front-runner has been spared by a flurry of unsubstantiated rumours that left many voters wavering.
According to the talk, Abol Fotouh is still secretly loyal to the Brotherhood and Mursi a mere puppet of the Brotherhood leadership and Moussa drinks alcohol - prohibited by Islam. An old video of leftist Hamdeen Sabahy praising former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has fanned talk of murky past allegiances.
With the outcome impossible to call, the policies and aptitudes of the contenders often took a back seat to voting strategy in the lively discussions outside polling station.
Liberals campaigning for personal freedoms and Coptic Christians fearing a creeping Islamic theocracy discussed the chances of the Brotherhood engineering a landslide for Mursi.
Supporters of Islamists and the youthful revolutionaries who led the uprising against Mubarak feared the army would try to sway the vote for his last prime minister Shafiq, as a prelude to snuffing out their newfound political freedoms.
Backers of Shafiq, a former air force commander, said he would bring some military-style order back to Egypt but others who also want an end to the chaos feared a backlash against a Shafiq win that could tip the country into anarchy.
The sense that they could only choose the least bad option left many feeling underwhelmed.
Gohar Mostafa, 50, said he had voted for Mursi but without conviction. “I just decided when I came, it happened like that. I don’t expect anything from him,” said the metal technician.
Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan, Tom Perry and Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Alistair Lyon