Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the moderate Islamist presidential contender, is leading a field of 12 candidates among Egyptians living abroad, with a surprise secular candidate breaking into the pack of leaders, according to numbers released to the country’s official news agency on Friday and Saturday.

Out of more than 100,000 ballots cast by Egyptian expatriates in more than 20 diplomatic outposts, Dr Aboul Fotouh – a former leader of the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – received 26 per cent of the votes, trouncing presumed frontrunner Amr Moussa, who has amassed just 18 per cent of the votes counted so far.

Mr Moussa, a former Egyptian diplomat and head of the Arab League, also trailed Hamdeen Sabahi, a left-leaning Arab nationalist candidate running as a Nasserist, who received nearly 19 per cent of the vote, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, who performed strongly in the Arabian Peninsula and received 22% of the expatriate vote tallied so far.

The campaign of Mr Sabahi, a 57-year-old journalist, has surged in recent days, drawing support from secularists who supported last year’s uprising against longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak and are wary of the Islamist candidates but see a victory by Mr Moussa, widely perceived as a collaborator with the former regime, as a defeat for the revolution.

Under Egypt’s election rules, expatriates were permitted to cast their ballots for the May 23-24 vote in advance at embassies and consulates.

The small number of overseas voters may not be representative of the country as a whole, particularly as figures were not available from Saudi Arabia, where over a quarter of a million Egyptians, many of whom are labourers, are registered to vote. According to the official website of the presidential elections 587,000 Egyptians are registered to vote abroad, most of them in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Nonetheless, the results are an indication of how difficult it is to predict the outcome of the country’s first free presidential election.

Dr Aboul Fotouh beat out other contenders among Egyptians voting at embassies in London, Washington, Germany, Austria and Russia and consulates in Houston and Chicago. He also won a decisive 30 per cent of the vote in Dubai, the commercial hub of the United Arab Emirates.

The numbers will probably serve as a psychological boost to the volunteer-driven Aboul Fotouh campaign as the election campaigning draws to a close.

Mr Sabahi led the field in France, followed closely by Ahmed Shafiq, the final prime minister under former president Mubarak, and Dr Aboul Fotouh.

Mr Moussa was favoured by voters in Lebanon, and he was reported by the daily Al-Ahram newspaper to have beaten both Dr Aboul-Fotouh and Mr Sabahi in Australia and New Zealand, although the numbers had not been finalised.

Mr Moussa also won among Egyptians in Greece, while Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi came out on top in Norway.

Mr Morsi led the field among Egyptians voting in Kuwait, Yemen and Sudan.

Mr Shafiq, who served as a deputy to deposed President Hosni Mubarak, placed fifth with just 9 per cent of the expatriate vote tallied so far, beating out contenders in voting in the Netherlands as well as in New York and Los Angeles.

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