Cairo: Millions of Egyptians queued outside polling stations and cast ballots to pick their first post-Mubarak President on Wednesday in a landmark poll, marking the culmination of a popular uprising that ousted an entrenched autocratic ruler and inspired millions across the Arab world.
The two-day exercise kicked off this morning amid tight security and is the final phase of a tumultuous transition overseen by the increasingly unpopular ruling military council.
The historic presidential election is being contested by candidates with both Islamist and secularist leanings who have promised radically different futures for the country.
Fifty million people are eligible to vote. A total of 13 contenders are in the fray but the race boils down to five major names.
Two figures of the former regime --former foreign minister Amr Moussa and former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, are up against two Islamists -- Mohamad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood-defect Abd-al-Munim Abul Futtuh, and leftist front-runner Hamadin Sabahi.
The military council which assumed presidential power in February 2011 has promised a fair vote and civilian rule.
The election pits Islamists against secularists, and revolutionaries against Mubarak-era ministers.
If no candidate gets an absolute majority, the top two vote-getters would compete in a run-off on June 16 and 17. The winner of the run-off would become Egypt`s first post-Mubarak era president and will take office before July 1.
The elections are being conducted under full judicial supervision and international monitors have arrived to observe the transparency of the process.
People have been queuing up in front of polling stations since 6.00 am. Voting began at 08:00 am local time (06:00 GMT). Voting continues until 20:00, and will resume for a second day on Thursday at 08:00.
The Interior Ministry estimated turnout at between 35 and 40 per cent. There was a heavy police and military presence outside the 13,000 polling sub-stations.
"I am a sick man but came early to vote because I don`t
want my country to be stolen anymore. I don`t want the revolution to be stolen anymore. I trust in these elections because I believe in the people of my country," a voter standing outside the polling station said.
The election is being hailed as a landmark for Egyptians, who have the opportunity to choose their leader for the first time in the country`s 5,000-year recorded history.
Proceedings have been largely peaceful, with the health ministry reporting just 13 injuries across the country, due to overcrowding at polling stations and high temperatures, BBC reported. No deaths related to election violence have so far been reported.
One police sergeant died after being shot during clashes between rival supporters in Rawdh al-Faraj yesterday, officials said.
For many people the election is not about religious dogma or party politics, but about who can put food on the table.
"I trust these elections will be transparent because every citizen is keen on casting his vote. If someone does not vote then he has done his country wrong. People will accept the results," a voter said.
Others said this historic exercise marks an end to autocratic rule once and for all.
"The election is a result of the revolution. There is no way one person will monopolise the power again. Tahrir has become a symbol. The entire country is now Tahrir," a voter added.
Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri has declared a day off for the government employees during the election. The Cabinet met today to discuss the monitoring of the presidential election.
The Carter Centre has allowed 22 international observers from 14 countries to observe the campaigning, the voting and the counting. Former US President Jimmy Carter met with Ganzouri yesterday to discuss the democratisation process in Egypt.
Justice Minister Adel Abdel Hamid formed an operations room for election purpose.
"People can call 19303 about any problem," he said.
Ganzouri asked citizens to participate in the election as "their duty" and urged them to accept the decision of the majority.
"I hope the election would pass peacefully. And I call on all political forces to accept the result," he said.
Meanwhile, Egyptians elections commission received reports of campaign violations.
The Presidential Elections Commission says it has received a complaint that former prime minister Shafiq held a press conference
outside a polling station in violation of campaign regulations and the period of election silence that took effect Monday.
The commission says it would examine the complaint and refer it to the Public Prosecution if it finds evidence to uphold the accusations.
Privately-owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that voters in the Kafr al-Sheikh area have received money and a meal in return for voting for Amr Moussa.
Inside the polling station, a policeman confirmed that security had made members of the Freedom and Justice Party move away from the polling station because they were attempting to influence voters.
Four official complaints were filed against Abouel Fotouh, Shafiq, Moussa, Morsy and Sabbahi campaigners.
Meanwhile, several members of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) today paid surprise visits to polling stations across the country.
The SCAF has been in power since Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising a year and half ago.
During his visit to Monufiya, General Ismail Etman reiterated the military rulers` commitment to be neutral towards all candidates.
"We are not biased toward anyone at the expense of another," he said.
Besides, a delegation from the US Congress visited polling stations and praised the voter turnout.
The delegation was headed by Senator David Dreier, who heads the Democratic Participation Committee in US Congress.
Dreier said the SCAF wishes to return to their barracks and to hand over power to an elected civilian government so it can deal with national security affairs.
Dreier said he asked SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi some time ago when he would hand over power, and that Tantawi answered by saying he wanted to deliver it yesterday.
Moreover, a post on the SCAF`s Facebook page has reiterated the military rulers` commitment to transferring power to the elected president. The post said all political powers should accept the results of the election.
But many Egyptians believe that even after returning to their barracks, Army generals will still have an influential role.
Some speculate that the generals will attempt to secure political and economic immunity within the new political system, especially as a civilian authority emerges.
Mubarak, a former air force chief, had full control over military appointments and dismissals, as well as the defense budget.
Meanwhile, Egypt`s stock market had risen by midday today, encouraged by an atmosphere of optimism produced by the presidential election, which has so far not witnessed major problems, alleviating investors` fears.