CAIRO - Millions of Egyptians stood in long lines Wednesday to cast ballots in the first presidential election since President Hosni Mubarak resigned last year amid massive protests.
The buildup to the contentious election has largely pitted candidates representing the old guard tied to Mubarak against Islamists trying to form new coalitions. In all, 13 candidates are on the ballot, but one has dropped out of the race. The voting will stretch over two days.
Voters lined up for blocks, waiting sometimes for hours to cast their ballot.
Voter Noha Kamal is relieved that, finally, her vote will count, after years of Mubarak winning tightly-controlled votes.
“This is the first time that we can choose, yes," Kamal said. "In the past 30 years we passed through a lot of questionnaires - 'is it ok or not to retain our president.' Every time, I didn't go.”
Opinion polls show four front runners. They include two Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and independent Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and two members of the old guard - veteran diplomat Amr Moussa and former Air Force commander Ahmed Shafik. Another candidate, socialist Hamdeen Sabahi has also been emerging in recent polls.
Religion has been central to most campaigns, but Cairo University student Howaida Magdi wishes otherwise. She says she's a Muslim, but she focuses on politics. Religion, she says, is everyone's personal choice, but it's “not the way to judge politicians.”
There are other key issues - the faltering economy and ongoing instability, with continuing protests, crackdowns and crime - issues that play into the campaigns of Moussa and Shafik who emphasize a return to order.
For some Egyptians, like voter Galal, the transition has been overwhelming, something he hopes whoever wins, be they old guard, or Islamists, will fix.
"We're tired," he said. “Flour is sold on the black market, People do not fear God.” He wants “the Egyptian nation to be united.”
Others worry that the recent upheaval and decades of political repression have left Egyptians unprepared.
Voter Said Zaki says people are too easily swayed by the last candidate they heard from.
“We don't have confidence,” he said, “not even in ourselves.”
But Human Rights Watch
researcher Heba Morayef says perhaps more important will be if people have confidence in the outcome of the vote, which could go to a run-off next month.
“We are also entering these elections without a constitution and you need a judiciary that Egyptians can trust, you need a president who is seen as legitimate even if he is not the preferred candidate," she said.
Morayef feels there may be some irregularities, but not the full-scale vote-rigging of the past.
At a polling station in southern Cairo, a woman who identifies herself only as “an Egyptian voter” acknowledges the vote isn't perfect.
“I don't think this election - it's fantastic to have an election - but I don't think it's going to represent the true wishes of the Egyptian people," she said.
But, she added, it's a first step - a first step on a very long road.