Egypt's presidential race appeared headed on Friday to a decisive and polarizing runoff between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate and another with strong ties to former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Preliminary counts from Egypt's first free presidential race show the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi in the lead and former prime minister and secularist Ahmed Shafiq a strong second.
The runoff, to be held on June 16-17, would offer Egyptians a stark choice between candidates from divergent paths.
Morsi was not his Islamist group's first choice for its presidential candidate. But he got the job when the Brotherhood's lead candidate was disqualified and then became a front runner in a show of the group's political muscle.
During the campaign, Morsi delivered fiery speeches and vowed his presidency would be based on Islam but not be a theocracy.
Shafiq was Mubarak's last prime minister before he lost power in last year's pro-democracy protests.
The former Air Force commander was appointed prime minister in hopes of appeasing the popular revolt. But because of that connection to Mr. Mubarak, he is viewed with some suspicion by activists involved in the 2011 movement and polarized voters.
Final results will not be announced until Tuesday.
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.
With some key pockets of voting remaining to be counted, independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahi also appears to have fared well and could gain on Shafiq. He rose steadily in opinion polls over the past week, attracting voters who wanted neither an Islamist or a former regime figure.
Some of the other 12 candidates who fared well include Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist supported by some liberals, leftists and minority Christians, and former foreign minister Amr Moussa, a secularist who served under Mr. Mubarak
VOA correspondent Elizabeth Arrott says voters are generally pleased with how election officials have handled the ballot-counting.
"In the polling stations themselves, they appear to be going through by hand and this has been one of the key things. Everybody has been very glad that they are doing it that way, By having observers watching them be counted in polling station by polling station, it's much, much harder to commit fraud on any large level."
Whoever wins faces massive challenges. Egypt's economy has collapsed as the key tourism industry dried up, crime has increased and labor strikes have proliferated.
Some information for this report was provided by AP.