Egyptians began voting freely on Wednesday for the first time to pick their president in a wide open election that pits Islamists against men who served under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.
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, many of Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters were already queuing before polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) to determine who would lead the country when the generals who have overseen a transition marred by violence, protests and political deadlock formally hand over by July 1.
Yet some were still unsure who to vote for even as they headed out to cast their ballots.
“I will vote today, no matter what, it is a historic thing to do, although I don’t really know who I will vote for,” said Mahmoud Morsy, 23, who then said he would probably pick the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi.
Voters were blitzed by three weeks of official campaigning, which ended on Sunday, and Egypt held its first U.S.-style televised presidential debate. Newspapers carried interviews and campaign adverts. Banners and posters festoon the streets.
Although official campaigning was over, candidates made a final push to get out the vote. Half a dozen minibuses plastered with “Yes to Amr Moussa” – the former Arab League chief bidding for office – offered free rides to polling stations.
None of the 12 candidates is expected to get more than half the votes and win outright in the first round on Wednesday and Thursday, and a run-off between the top two is likely in June.
It is the first time that ordinary Egyptians, ruled down the centuries by pharaohs, sultans, kings and military officers, have a genuine chance to choose their leader.
“I have not voted before in my life for a president so the experience is quite new and makes me feel like a citizen of this country,” said Ahmed Ali, a student of pharmaceutical studies in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.
Whoever wins faces a huge task to deliver changes that Egyptians expect to relieve a grim economic outlook. The military that was a pillar of Mubarak’s rule is likely to remain a powerful political force for years.
The army, whose senior ranks control extensive commercial interests, insists it does not want to hang onto power.
“With these elections, we will have completed the last step in the transitional period,” General Mohamed el-Assar told a news conference on the eve of voting.
There is little reliable survey data to indicate which candidate will emerge as head of state.
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.
“Our vote will make Egypt’s voice in the Arab world ring loud and clear,” said Saad Abed Raboh, a civil servant in his mid-50s voting in Alexandria. “For 30 years Egypt’s vote was muted, but now it will be heard because Egyptians will choose their president.”
Many Gulf states are concerned about who will lead the regional heavyweight after their long-time ally Mubarak was ousted. Their conservative monarchies have so far emerged from a wave of Arab uprisings relatively unscathed.
The Brotherhood’s Mursi, trying to allay such worries, pledged in a final rally on Sunday that “we will not export our revolution to anyone”.
Mursi was pitched into the race at the last minute after the Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate was ruled out. He may lack charisma, but he can rely on the Brotherhood’s vote machine.
His rivals include Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an Islamist who has drawn support ranging from liberals to hardline Salafi Muslims; Moussa, who was foreign minister before moving to the Arab League and has strong name recognition; and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who like his former boss, once commanded the air force.
A late surge helped Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose “Free Officers” overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and set up the system that has put military men in the presidency for the past 60 years.
Mubarak, under pressure from Washington, his key ally and financial sponsor, to open up politics, staged Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential race in 2005. 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.