Egypt launched its first free presidential election in six decades on Wednesday, as Islamists battled with former regime figures to inherit the seat vacated by Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago.

Balloting will continue on Thursday, with a runoff next month between the top two vote-getters. First round results will be formally announced on Tuesday, but the outcome could be clear as early as Saturday.

The military council in charge of a messy and often bloody political transition has overseen a constitutional referendum, parliamentary polls and now a vote for a president to whom it has promised to hand over power by July 1.

There were no reliable opinion polls, but Egyptians enjoyed the uncertainty after the rigged votes of Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

“The outcome is not yet clear, in large part because the Egyptian electorate is seriously fragmented and driven by both political and religious divisions,” Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, told The Jerusalem Post.

“Behind the current presidential contest is a larger competition between secularists and the Egyptian military on the one hand, and Islamist forces on the other,” Berman said. “The past year has also seen a catastrophic decline in Egypt’s economic health. How Egyptians vote will reflect who they believe can best steer the ship into more stable economic times.”

Voting passed calmly for the most part, but candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, came under attack from protesters who threw stones and shoes at his convoy as he voted at a Cairo polling station late in the day.

Shafiq, 70, was not hurt in the melee, witnesses said.

Whoever wins faces the huge task of reversing a dire economic outlook and will also have to deal with a military establishment keen to preserve its privileges and political influence.

The relative powers of the president, government, parliament, judiciary and military have yet to be defined as a tussle over who should write a new constitution rumbles on.

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Across much of the country the mood was festive and relaxed, with voters chatting in lines that thinned as temperatures climbed and swelled again in the evening. Voting was extended by one hour and the government declared Thursday a holiday to encourage a high turnout.

In one Cairo district, 75-yearold candidate Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general, stood in line with everyone else. “I hope they will elect a president who can really lead Egypt at this time of crisis,” he said.

Some voters clapped for independent Islamist contender Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, 60, when he too joined a line in Cairo.

“For the first time the Egyptian people went out to choose their president after the end of an era of ‘pharaohs,’” Abol Fotouh said, alluding to Mubarak and his autocratic predecessors who, like him, were drawn from the top ranks of the military.

Many Egyptians felt empowered and excited by the occasion.

One Alexandria minibus driver was not charging voters heading to the polls.

“The rides today are on me,” said Fathi Abdelaal. “Egyptians are finally in command of their destiny.”

Yet some were worried.

George Boulos voiced the concerns of many of his fellow Christians, who make up a 10th of the population, about the rise of Islamists who already dominate parliament.

“I voted for Ahmed Shafiq because he is balanced and a non-Islamist candidate. He is not prejudiced against any segment of society. He is for all ordinary Egyptians,” Boulos said.

The AFP news agency quoted a Coptic woman as saying “everyone” in Shubra, a poor Christian suburb of Cairo, was voting for the former prime minister and air force chief.

“Shafiq is a respectable man who can restore the country,” said the woman, identified only as Mary.

The agency quoted another, unnamed, Christian woman as saying she had considered selecting Moussa “because he’s an experienced man,” but in the end cast her ballot for Shafiq “because everyone’s voting for him.”

The election is being closely followed outside of Egypt as well. The West has long been wary of Islamists, and Israel is fearful about the fate of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and the boost the Muslim Brotherhood could give to its Palestinian offshoot Hamas in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia and other USaligned Gulf states were alarmed at the fall of their longtime ally Mubarak and now worry about who will replace him at the helm of the most populous Arab nation.

To allay Gulf fears, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi said on Sunday: “We will not export our revolution to anyone.” After voting, the USeducated engineer took a swipe at Moussa and Shafiq: “No way can anyone from the fallen, corrupt, former regime come back to influence this nation.”

Shafiq appeals to Egyptians who want a strong hand to bring stability, even if opponents say he is tainted by links to the old order. Defending himself, Shafiq told a news conference: “I worked for the big family of Egypt – not for someone or for a regime.”

Moussa left Mubarak’s cabinet more than a decade ago.

After moving to the Arab League, he built up the popularity he had gained by criticizing Israel and US policy in the region.

Abol Fotouh, who was kicked out of the Brotherhood when he said he would run against its wishes, has sought support across the spectrum from relative liberals to hard-line Salafi Muslims.

Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy has gained traction with many voters unsatisfied both with Islamists and Mubarak’s former ministers.

“Those who have been marginalized and throttled can now get their rights in a country of freedom and dignity,” Sabahy, a veteran champion of the downtrodden, said after voting in Cairo.

Mubarak, under pressure from his US ally, did stage one multi-candidate vote in 2005, but with curbs that barred any realistic challenge to his rule.

Last year’s popular revolt overthrew him before another election that would have been due last year.

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