Egypt wraps up two-day landmark presidential polls, ballot count begins

Officials count the ballots after the polls in Egypt’s landmark presidential election closed in Cairo. (Reuters)

Egypt wrapped up two days of polling Thursday in a landmark presidential election that pitted stability against the ideals of the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule but the hard-fought contest threatened to go to a runoff.

Polling stations closed at 9:00 p.m. (1900 GMT) after around 50 million eligible voters were called to cast their ballots in 13,000 polling stations around the country, electoral officials told Al Arabiya.

Votes are being counted at several polling stations across the country, Al Arabiya reported at the close of the polls.

If no one wins more than half the votes needed for outright victory in Wednesday and Thursday’s first round, the top two candidates will contest a June 16 and 17 run-off. Initial results may emerge well before Tuesday’s official announcement.

The ballot, the first since 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.

Queues formed outside the voting centers after they opened at 8:00 a.m. (0600 GMT) with authorities declaring Thursday a holiday to allow public sector employees to cast their ballots.

“We used to consider the president a knight who could solve all our problems, but we have to look at what kind of system we want, not just the person we want,” said Ayman Saad, 26, his finger stained purple with indelible ink to show he had voted.

Turnout appeared to vary across the country, with long queues outside some polling stations, and scant participation in others.

The official body supervising the election estimated that around 50 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot.

Around 50 million voters were choosing among 12 candidates, with the front runners divided between Islamists who say they will champion the uprising’s goals and Mubarak-era ministers.

Among the contenders was former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, seen as an experienced politician and diplomat. But like Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, he is accused of ties with the old regime.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Mursi, faces competition from Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Islamist movement who portrays himself as a consensus choice with a wide range of support.

At a school in the upmarket Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis, with the dome of Mubarak’s former presidential palace visible a few hundred meters (yards) away, hundreds of women braved the heat to stand in line to vote.

Noha Hamdy, 27, said it was a pleasant novelty to be voting in an election where the outcome is not predetermined.

“We go to an election not knowing who will win. I never voted before because the winner was always known in advance,” she said. “This time I feel who I vote for, even if he doesn’t win, will make a difference.”

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 big challenge for the president will be to attract foreign investors and boost tourism,” to “restore the balance of payments” and “restore the reserve” currency in the central bank, which has dropped by half in the past year, Mahmoud Abdel Fadil, a Cairo University economics professor, told AFP.

To do that, the new president will have to “reestablish political stability and assure a level of total security. Confidence must be restored,” he added.

The election seals a tumultuous military-led transition from autocratic rule marked by political upheaval and bloodshed, but which also witnessed democratic parliamentary elections that saw Islamist groups score a crushing victory.

Ballot boxes from Wednesday were kept overnight in the stations after being sealed with wax by election commission officials and left under military and police protection.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in power since Mubarak’s ouster, has vowed to restore civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its withdrawal from politics 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.

Mubarak, 84 and ailing, is being held in a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo where 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.

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