CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians queued to choose a new leader on Saturday in the first free presidential election in their history, facing a stark choice between a conservative Islamist and a former military officer who served ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Reeling from a court order two days ago to dissolve a new parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many question whether the wealthy generals who pushed aside their fellow officer Mubarak last year to appease the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring will honor a pledge to let civilians rule.
With neither a parliament nor a new constitution in place to define the president's powers, voting on Saturday and Sunday will not settle the matter, leaving 82 million Egyptians, foreign investors and allies in the United States and Europe unsure what kind of state the most populous Arab nation will be.
For those who preferred the secular centrists, leftists and moderate Islamists who lost in the first round, the two-man run-off leaves an unpalatable choice from the extremes.
Some of Egypt's 50 million eligible voters say they will despoil their ballots rather than back Ahmed Shafik, 70, a former air force commander who was Mubarak's last prime minister, or Mohammed Morsy, 60, of the Brotherhood, the clandestine enemy of army rule for six decades.
But many were determined to make their voice heard. Queues formed early at some polling stations as they opened at 8 a.m. (02.00 a.m. EDT) for the first of two days of voting. A result could be known as early Sunday night, after the second day's vote.
"I am going to vote for Shafik. He is a military man, ex-pilot and war commander. He has exactly what need in a leader. A strong military man to have a strong grip on the state and bring back security," said Hamdy Saif, 22, a student who like many Egyptians are desperate for order after Mubarak's overthrow.
There are signs of exasperation with the Brotherhood's push for power on the back of a revolt driven in its early stages by the secular, urban middle class may limit Morsy's ability to widen his appeal beyond the Brotherhood's disciplined ranks.
The Brotherhood had secure the biggest bloc in parliament that was elected in a vote that ended in January, and initially said they would not field a presidential candidate but then changed tack at the last minute.
The court ruling to dissolve parliament reverses those gain, and could help win some more sympathizers for the group.
"I was going to vote for Shafik but after parliament was dissolved, I changed my mind and will vote Morsy. There is no more fear of the Islamists dominating everything," said Ahmed Attiya, 35, a IT technician in Cairo's Zamalek district.
"Shafik represents a counter-revolution," he added.
EUPHORIA THEN FRUSTRATION
Critics denounced the parliament ruling as a coup and compared it to the start of the Algerian civil war, when the military cancelled an election won by Islamists 20 years ago.
But the Brotherhood renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt decades ago and an Islamist uprising in the 1990s was put down by Mubarak and his security forces, which have survived last year's revolt intact.
Although ordinary Egyptians are choosing their leader for the first time in a history that stretches back to pharaonic times, the euphoria that accompanied Mubarak's overthrow on February 11, 2011 has given way to exhaustion and frustration after a messy and often violent transition overseen by army generals.
Hardline Islamist violence this month in Tunis, where the first Arab Spring uprising inspired Egyptians to emulate their North African neighbors, has also hardened fears of political Islam, notably among those dependent on tourism for a living, secular activists, women and the Egypt's Christians, who make up a tenth of the nation.
Both candidates have sought the center ground, promising to rule in the spirit of the revolution: "It is not correct that the military council wants to rule through me," Shafik said.
Morsy, a last-minute choice for the Brotherhood after their preferred candidate was barred, has played down talk of a crackdown on beachwear and alcohol that would hurt tourism and steered away from confrontation with Israel after three decades of cool peace maintained during Mubarak's military-backed rule.
But both candidates are also defined by those who promoted them. The Brotherhood candidate says he is running because God expects him to offer his sacrifice for the nation. Shafik's air force career shadowed that of Mubarak, his elder by 13 years.
"We are back to the political dynamic of secular versus Islamist, of a civil state versus an Islamist state," said Mona Makram Ebeid, a political scientist and member of a body that advises SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
"That is what we as political forces are confronted with today, causing almost a gridlock," she said, referring to months of wrangling between the army, Islamists, liberals and other parties seeking to carve a new course for the nation.
During Mubarak's era, his presidency was mainly endorsed in single-candidate referendums but in 2005, under pressure from his U.S. ally, he held a multi-candidate presidential race. No one was surprised when Mubarak cruised to an easy win because of rules that made it impossible to put up a realistic challenge.
(Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul; Writing by Edmund Blair and Alastair MacDonald; Editing by Angus MacSwan)