As Egyptians wrapped up two days of voting in a historic presidential election, early indicators showed the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist candidate taking the lead among the five presumed front-runners.
A spokesman for the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi said Thursday the candidate was ahead in nationwide exit polls conducted by the organization's campaign workers. All five front-runners voiced optimism about their prospects even as several acknowledged Morsi’s relatively strong early showing.
The reliability of the Brotherhood's polls could not be confirmed. Regional television channels, citing their own exit polls, also placed Morsi as the top finisher, with rivals Ahmed Shafiq and Hamdeen Sabahi vying for second place.
Final results of the first round are to be announced Tuesday. A runoff is scheduled for June 16-17 between the two top finishers. The winner will be announced June 21.
After high turnout on the first day, Egyptian media said it only reached 40 percent on Thursday, with ballot counting beginning immediately after the polls closed. The government had declared Thursday a holiday to make it easier for public sector employees to cast their ballots.
Election monitors said the first day of polling was largely free of fraud and violence with voters braving long lines and heat.
After six decades under authoritarian, military-backed rule, Egypt's 50 million eligible voters are freely choosing a leader for the first time in their history.
Morsi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh are the leading Islamist contenders. Shafiq, a former prime minister, and former foreign minister Amr Moussa are both secularists rooted in former President Hosni Mubarak's old guard.
Sabahi is a leftist who had been a dark horse but gained steadily in opinion polls over the past week, attracting Egyptians who want neither an Islamist or a former regime figure.
Aboul Fotouh's moderate, inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians. As a dissident former Brotherhood leader, he has also won the backing of Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis, whose candidates won a quarter of the votes in recent parliamentary elections.
Morsi entered the race late but has benefited from the Brotherhood's powerful political machine. His victory would likely mean a greater emphasis on religion in government.
Aboul Fotouh argues that the Brotherhood should go back to its roots in preaching and charity and get out of party politics.
Two of their secularist rivals, Moussa and Shafik, are campaigning as alternatives to Islamist domination, voices of experience and stability and the firm hands needed to blunt the lawlessness that has followed Mr. Mubarak's ouster.
Shafik has the support of Egypt's powerful military that has ruled the country in the 15 months since a popular revolt swept the former president from power.
A victory for one of the secularist candidates would mark a significant turn from parliamentary elections just six months ago when more than 70 percent of voters cast ballots for Islamist parties.
Whoever wins faces massive challenges - the economy has collapsed as the key tourism industry dried up, crime has increased and labor strikes have proliferated.