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Last updated: May 24, 2012 1:50 pm
Millions of Egyptians went to the polls to choose a president in a historic election intended to end army rule and usher in a new democratic era more than a year after the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Lines formed in front of voting stations and a brisk flow of voters cast their ballots, though turnout in the first of two days of the election appeared lower than in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary poll held late last year.
The vote comes after a feverish election campaign pitting powerful Islamist contenders against each other and against influential figures linked to the former regime. In both urban and rural areas the voting seemed split between five leading contenders, and no reliable pattern pointing to an outright winner was apparent.
This is the first time in their long history that Egyptians will be able to choose their leader. If there is no clear winner from among the 12 candidates, there will be a run-off vote on June 16 and 17.
In the bustling working-class Cairo district of Sayida Zaineb, Fatima Saieed, a 64-year-old housewife wearing a niqab, the face covering associated with religious conservatism, said she had voted for Amr Moussa, the former Mubarak-era foreign minister who had been a leading secular candidate in pre-election day opinion polls.
“He has been a seasoned politician for a long time and he will make our country stand up on its feet again,” she said. “I voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections but they want to tailor a constitution to their own size. They want the government and the presidency, they want everything. We have tried them but they have not worked out.”
Although many voters said they supported Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Ms Saieed’s complaints about the organisation, which controls almost half the seats in parliament, were echoed by others who said their hopes had been dashed by the performance of the assembly.
Some also said they had earlier voted for the once-banned and persecuted Islamist organisation, but they were now shunning it because of what they saw as its attempts to concentrate power in its hands by seeking to control parliament, the presidency and the country’s stalled constitution-writing process.
The name of Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftwing candidate who seems to have received a last-minute surge in support, cropped up repeatedly as many voters said they had cast their ballots for him because “he is one of us”, echoing his campaign slogan.
“My whole family is agreed on Hamdeen,” said Fatma Abdel Aal, a housewife from Barageel, a village just outside Cairo. “We are optimistic, we feel he is one of us. I think the Brotherhood may be too strict. We voted for them in the parliamentary election but they did nothing.”
The fragmentation of the vote was also evident in rural areas of the Nile Delta, a region which is usually seen as a stronghold of the Islamists. Outside a polling station in the town of Shahid Fekry, residents said many were backing Ahmed Shafiq, a former military man who served as Mr Mubarak’s last prime minister.
“He’s strong,” said Moneim Abdul Azzim, a 40-year-old labourer. “He represents peace and stability.”
In a deeply divided political landscape, there had been fears that the vote could be marred by electoral fraud.
The campaign of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an ex-Brotherhood member, submitted an official complaint against Mr Shafiq, alleging that he held a press conference and gave a television interview on election day in breach of the rules.
Thousands of local observers and a few hundred foreigners, including dozens from the Carter Centre, were deployed. Initial reports suggested there had been some irregularities but that they appeared to be minor.
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