Voters are going to the polls in Egypt for the first competitive presidential election. Early in the day, turnout at the polls was light amid calls by prominent anti-government groups to boycott the balloting. Longtime president Hosni Mubarak is expected to easily win re-election over his nine opponents.
There were few people to be seen at most voting stations when polls opened at 8 a.m. local time. At one polling place in the Taalat Harb district of downtown Cairo, it was probably good that only two voters were there first thing, because officials were still distributing materials and locking the ballot boxes 15 minutes later.
After the delay, there was still more confusion, since the first voters were from a different district, and although they were allowed to vote there, the chief election officer was not sure what to do with their ballots. He had to call his supervisor to find out.
Things were running a little more smoothly at two other polling stations nearby. Voters showed their IDs, dipped their fingers in red ink, and marked their ballots, which for the first time in history, have more than one name on them.
A retired civil servant named Morgan Mohammed said he voted for President Mubarak, but he made it clear that he was glad to have a choice.
"First of all, I would like to say that before we had no freedom to decide any decision, but now I can decide who I like, and I can check and choose my president freely, without any fear," he said.
Feelings were the same outside a different polling center, set aside specially for women.
These women enthusiastically announce their support for the president, waving their ink-stained fingers.
One woman says, "I am here to elect President Hosni Mubarak because he is the one who is doing good things for us, like with schools and pensions."
There were a few voters at different stations who did not want to say who they were voting for, and Egyptian security officers appeared to be eavesdropping on all media interviews near polling stations.
Mr. Mubarak has already been in power for 24 years and is expected to easily win re-election. The pro-democracy movement known as Kifaya has urged its supporters to boycott the poll, saying they believe it will be rigged.
After polls were already open, state television announced that independent monitors from local civic groups would be allowed to observe the voting from inside polling station. Earlier, despite a court order, election officials had said they would refuse to allow independent monitoring of the poll.
"If the election would be fair and clean, I think they have nothing to hide," says Mohammed El-Sawi, the monitoring coordinator for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "And they will let anyone to go and see what's going on, if it's fair or not. If it's fair, they want to tell everyone it's fair. So it's a good chance for them, actually, to let civil society organization to monitor the election."
Mr. Mubarak has been in power since 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He has never before faced any opponents on the ballot.
This time, he is facing nine. But only two of them are believed to pose any real challenge to the longtime leader - Ayman Nour of the Tomorrow Party and Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd Party.
Almost everyone expects the president to win easily.
Since this is the first time Egyptian election officials have ever had to count ballots with more than one name on them, it is likely to be several days before the results are released. Election officials have until Saturday to announce the outcome.