The first round of Egypt’s presidential voting ended Thursday with two front-runners – both members of the former Hosni Mubarak regime – sparring over who should stay in the race to confront the country’s resurgent Islamists.

After six decades under authoritarian, military-backed rule, Egypt’s 50 million voters can decide whether to entrust the country to an Islamist president for the next four years, as well as the Islamist-led assembly they chose earlier. But secular candidates like former foreign minister Amr Moussa and Mubarak’s last premier Ahmed Shafiq are still both seen as viable contenders.

The website of Al-Ahram newspaper reported Moussa’s campaign had asked Shafiq to pull out of the race “so as not to split votes.”

“It is clear now that Shafiq could only compete for the third or fourth place, so it is better that he withdraw,” a Moussa campaign staffer told Egyptian television. Shafiq’s campaign responded that the idea had “never crossed his mind,” and on Twitter said the former foreign minister appeared to be “suffering from electoral hallucinations.”

Other leading candidates are the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, 60, the independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, 60, and the leftist nationalist Hamdeen Sabahy, 57.

Thursday was the second and final day of first-round balloting.

If no candidate wins more than half the votes needed for outright victory, the top two will compete in a runoff election on June 16 and 17. First-round results may be clear as early as Saturday, but an official announcement is not due until Tuesday.

The vote marks a crucial stage in a turbulent army-led transition racked by protests, violence and political disputes.

The generals who took charge when Mubarak was ousted on February 11, 2011, have pledged to hand over power to the new president by July 1.

On the ground, queues built up outside some polling stations in the baking sun, with many voters determined not to miss their chance to influence the first round. The government declared Thursday a public holiday to allow state employees to cast their vote.

Click for special JPost features

According to election consultant Ossama Kamel, fewer abuses have occurred in this vote than in the parliamentary poll that ended in January, partly because of lessons learned then. He predicted a last-minute rush to the polls on Thursday, with voting time extended, perhaps for several hours.

“Vote-buying doesn’t happen on the day in the polling station,” said Kamel. “It happens in voters’ homes or in meeting places like the mosque and you can have no control over this.”

The Muslim Brotherhood said Mursi was ahead after the first day of voting. Moussa’s campaign also put Mursi in the lead with its candidate second, but their estimates could not be confirmed.

Explaining why he favored Moussa, Mohamed Salem, a shopkeeper near the pyramids, said, “I want security and prosperity like before. We in the tourism sector were the most hurt. We could not count the number of tourists coming into our shops every day. Now we hardly need our fingers to count them.”

Egyptians appear divided, even within families, between those willing to give Islamists a chance to rule this deeply conservative country and those who put security first.

“Security is the most important thing, of course. If there is security, we will have work, money and an economy. If there is no security, no tourists will come. That’s the first thing,” said Sayed Muhammad, 33, a company manager, who supports Shafiq.

Security is Shafiq’s strongest card. A former aviation minister, he was appointed prime minister days before Mubarak fell and quit soon afterwards in response to popular protests. But his links with the Mubarak era may tell against him.

When he voted in Cairo, protesters hurled shoes and stones at him, crying: “The coward is here, down with military rule.”

Even with 12 candidates to choose from, many Egyptians seem unconvinced by any of them, resolving to vote for the least bad.

“None of them is good enough to be president but Mursi is the best of the worst,” said Sherif Abdelaziz, a 30-year-old voter in the capital’s slum district of Manshiet Nasr.

“There are lots of poor people, not just me. Many people live amid this rubbish. We need to give them justice, bread, access to hospitals,” he said. “If you have money in Egypt, you can go to any hospital and live; if you don’t, you die.”

He disparaged Shafiq and Moussa as feloul, a term referring to remnants from the Mubarak era, and said that if either was elected president, a new revolution would kick off in Tahrir Square.

In the Sinai resort town of El-Arish, one voter said he voted for Moussa because compared to the Islamist candidates, he is less likely to start quarrels with Israel.

“We’ll pay the price here if any candidate decides to antagonize Israel,” a Sinai Bedouin told the website Egypt Independent. Another local resident gave a slightly different view, saying he would vote for either Moussa or Shafiq because “they are the only ones who can protect the Sinai from Israel.”

Al-Ahram quoted “informed sources” predicting Mursi, Moussa and Shafiq the top three vote-getters.

“Most probably, it will be Mursi and Moussa [in the runoff round], but those who underestimate Shafiq – and the volume and nature of support he is getting – could be in for a big surprise,” the state-run daily quoted an unnamed official as saying.

The Brotherhood’s Mursi “has been gaining faster than has been indicated in opinion polls,” the official said.

“He’s getting support from beyond the Brotherhood’s traditional support base; from those who have benefited from the group’s charitable activities, Salafists, and conservative voters, who may have earlier been inclined to support Abol Fotouh.”

The paper noted that Shafiq is riding a wave of support from Coptic Christians, whose church leadership has reportedly instructed its flock to choose the ex-premier as the likeliest candidate to confront Egypt’s emboldened Islamists.

Mubarak, 84, is contemplating the spectacle of a free election from the upscale Cairo hospital where he is confined while on trial for ordering the killing of protesters and for corruption. A verdict is due on June 2, two weeks before any presidential run-off. A death sentence is possible but unlikely.



Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger