Egyptians headed to the polls on Wednesday to choose the first president since the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak, passing a milestone in the country’s march toward civilian rule after more than 15 months of turmoil.
Queues formed outside polling stations long before they opened at 08:00 am (0600 GMT), with voters in festive mood.
The historic presidential election, contested by Islamists and secularists promising radically different futures for the country, is the final phase of a tumultuous transition overseen by the ruling military council.
The contest is a novelty for a nation where elections during the 30-year rule of a man some called “Pharaoh” were thinly attended rigmaroles in which the result was a foregone conclusion.
This time Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters are expected to turn out in force to determine who will lead the country after the generals who have overseen a transition marred by violence, protests and political deadlock formally hand over by July 1.
The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.
Among the contenders is former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who is seen as an experienced politician and diplomat but like Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, is accused of belonging to the old regime.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Mursi faces competition from Abdul Moniem Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Islamist movement who portrays himself as a consensus choice with a wide range of support. Also among the top contenders in the presidential race is leftist opposition leader Hamdeen Sabbahi.
A weekly survey published in the state-run al-Ahram newspaper has put Moussa in first place. At the same time, other polls have given the top spot to Abul Fotouh and Shafiq.
The election caps a rollercoaster transition, marked by political upheaval and bloodshed, but which also witnessed democratic parliamentary elections that saw Islamist groups score a crushing victory.
On Tuesday, ballot boxes were being distributed to the 13,000 polling stations around the country. Voting will take place over two days, according to AFP.
No outright winner is expected to emerge from the two-day vote, so a runoff is scheduled for June 16-17 between the two top contenders.
Candidates have been campaigning across the country for weeks in an unprecedented democratic exercise made possible by the early 2011 revolt.
A ban on campaign-related activities, laid down by the Supreme Presidential Election Commission for 48 hours before the vote, did little to dim excitement in the capital, as an army vehicle rumbled through Tahrir Square -- the epicenter of protests that toppled Mubarak -- urging Egyptians to vote.
“Rise, Egyptian; Egypt is calling you,” the soldier shouted through a loudspeaker, borrowing the lyrics from a popular nationalist song by iconic composer Sayyed Darwish.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in power since Mubarak’s ouster, repeated its earlier calls for Egyptians to turn out en masse to the polls, while warning against any “violation.”
“The participation of citizens in the presidential election is the best guarantee of the transparency and security of the electoral process,” Mohammed al-Assar, a member of the SCAF, was quoted as saying by state news agency MENA.
“We will not allow any violation or (attempt) to influence the electoral process or the voters,” he added, saying that any person who broke the law would be treated “firmly and decisively.”
The SCAF has vowed to hand power to civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its retreat will be just an illusion.
The army, with its vast and opaque economic power, wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.
“Of course I will vote. I want change. We can’t stay in this messy situation for the rest of our lives,” Wael Azmy, an accountant, who has taken Wednesday off work to give him time to join the queues he expects to form outside polling stations, told Reuters.
Mubarak, 84 and ailing, may watch the election from a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo as he awaits the verdict of his murder trial on June 2.
The former strongman is accused of involvement in the killing of some 850 protesters during the uprising and of corruption.
According to pollsters, the large number of voters undecided between candidates reflecting radically different trends and the novelty of a free presidential vote make Wednesday's election almost impossible to call.
The West, long wary of Islamists, and Israel, worried about its 33-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, are watching to see if proponents of political Islam add to their gains after sweeping most seats in a parliamentary vote that ended in January.
Many Gulf states are equally concerned about who will lead the regional heavyweight after their long-time ally Mubarak was ousted.
Under pressure from Washington, his key ally and financial sponsor, to open up politics, Mubarak in 2005 staged Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential race. But rules barred any realistic challenge to him. Another vote had been due in 2011 but he was toppled by a popular uprising before that.
(Additional writing by Abeer Tayel)