Millions of Egyptians will head to the polls for the second day of its first free presidential election on Thursday, with former government officials and Islamists competing as the country attempts to move from post-revolutionary chaos to fledgling democracy.
The ballot, the first since Hosni Mubarak’s departure last year following a bloody uprising, included 12 candidates -- some drawn from the ranks of the Islamists, others secularists and former members of Mubarak’s administrations. Many millions voted in mostly peaceful balloting on Wednesday, officials said, though turnout figures varied.
In a nation where all four presidents to have run the country during the past 60 years, including Mubarak, were drawn from the military, the vote that began on Wednesday afforded more than 50 million eligible voters a rare choice. Voting takes place in 13,000 polling stations nationwide.
U.S. hails vote as “historic” and “stunning”
The United States on Wednesday hailed the start of the first free presidential election in Egypt as a “very important milestone” in the country’s transition to democracy.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the event “historic” and “stunning”.
“I don’t know if you've seen the ballot. It’s really quite stunning. It's about this long with many, many candidates,” Nuland told reporters.
“Today does mark the start of a first round of Egypt’s historic presidential elections. It’s a very important milestone for Egypt’s transition. Egyptians are voting. And we look forward to the outcome.
Voting passed off mostly calmly on the first day apart from a stone-throwing attack on candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who was the last prime minister of the old regime.
On Wednesday, after a slow start, cooler evening temperatures and the end of the work day prompted a surge in voters, who wound their way through streets outside polling stations across the country.
Heavy burdens awaiting the new president
Two of the candidates are expected to go into June run offs after the May 23 and 24 vote, with pollsters saying the number of undecided voters makes the result of the first round extremely difficult to predict, according to AFP.
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.
The race broadly pits Islamist candidates against secular ones like Shafiq and Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief who previously served as Mubarak’s foreign minister.
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. Leftist opposition leader Hamdeen Sabbahi is also one of the main contenders in the race.
Several of the candidates broke an election committee period of silence during the polling to shore up their chances and attack others, with Shafiq warning of a “huge problem” if the Islamists get into power.
Pollsters say many of the undecided voters who say they will cast ballots are likely to make up their minds at the last minute or be swayed by the candidate who has the best network in mustering votes.
The election caps a roller-coaster transition, marked by political upheaval and deadly bloodshed, but which also witnessed democratic parliamentary elections that saw Islamist groups score a crushing victory.
Results are expected on Sunday.
Long queues formed at polling stations early on Wednesday, and some were packed late into the evening. But turnout, so far, seemed lower than an earlier parliamentary vote when Islamists swept up most seats. The scorching sun deterred some.
“I’ll vote on Thursday to avoid the crowds. I’m backing Amr Moussa. He knows the country and has the experience. I chose the Muslim Brotherhood's party in the parliamentary election but we didn't get anything from them,” 57-year-old Fouad Mahmoud told Reuters.
The Muslim Brotherhood said its candidate, Mursi, was ahead after Wednesday’s voting. Moussa’s campaign office also put Mursi in the lead with the former League chief second.
Voters reveled in their new ability to influence a genuinely contested election after decades of rigged votes under Mubarak, a military man like all Egypt’s previous presidents.
“This is the first time that I vote in my entire life. I didn’t take part in past elections because we knew who would be president. This is the first time we don't know,” said Mohammed Mustafa, a 52-year-old engineer in Cairo’s Zamalek district.
Abul Fotouh, 60, was clapped on joining a Cairo queue. Mursi, 60, said after voting in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig that Egyptians would not accept anyone from Mubarak’s “corrupt former regime.”
When Shafiq, 70, arrived to vote in Cairo, protesters hurled shoes and stones at him. “The coward is here. The criminal is here,” they cried. “Down with military rule.” Like Mubarak, Shafiq commanded the air force before joining the cabinet.
The former prime minister, who was appointed days before Mubarak fell and who quit soon afterwards amid protests against him in Tahrir Square, is one of the most divisive candidates.
He appeals to those who want a strongman to restore order, but others see him as embodying everything they wanted changed.
Moussa, 75, left Mubarak’s cabinet a decade before the uprising. At the Arab League, he built on his popularity with criticism of Israel and U.S. policy in the region. Yet some still brand him a remnant of the old order.
For many of those who cannot stomach Islamists or Mubarak-era ministers, the favorite is leftist Sabahy, 57.
Independent monitors noted minor infringements in Wednesday’s voting, such as campaigning outside polling stations, but said they did not undermine its validity.
Mubarak, 84, is on trial for ordering the killing of protesters and for corruption. A verdict is due on June 2.
Security across the country was tight, with the military saying it had deployed over 150,000 troops to secure the polling sites. The ruling generals said they were ready to deal with any disturbances and help enforce rules banning campaigning during the election period. Arab television stations reported some instances of clashes between supporters of rival candidates.