Egyptian voters headed for polling booths in droves on Wednesday to take part in the two-day presidential polls that are likely to define the course of the revolution that began last year, bringing down Hosni Mubarak.

Early risers formed serpentine queues outside polling stations under the strict watch of the police and troops. Many men, sporting beards and attired in gelabiya — the traditional robe cut out of single cloth — stood with fashionable young men, conspicuous in their flashy blue jeans and trendy sunglasses. Women voted in separate booths.

These voters, savouring the first free presidential election since the 1952 revolution that ended the monarchy, were polling for candidates drawn from the Mubarak era — Ahmed Shafiq, the former President's last Prime Minister, and Amr Moussa, a Foreign Minister for several years — who were pitted against parties and individuals who were at the forefront of the uprising.

The heavyweight candidates who have been thrown up by the revolt include Abdel-Moneim Abul Fotouh, a soft-Islamist who has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most organised Islamist party. Mohamed Morsy is the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, while Hamdeen Sabbahi, a secular poet-turned-politician, who has drawn inspiration from Gemal Abdel Nasser, modern Egypt's founder, has emerged as a “dark horse” in what appears to be an open-ended contest.

The two day polling has commenced in the backdrop of an energetic campaign where Mr. Shafiq — a former aviator —and Mr. Moussa highlighted their years of experience in governance and pledged to restore in Egypt, “stability and security,” which has been rocked in the aftermath of Mr. Mubarak’s exit.

Analysts point out that both these candidates have the support of a large section of the country’s business elite as well as influential landowners in the agricultural heartland of Upper Egypt. Their message for the restoration of order, conveyed in a largely secular idiom has, supposedly, also gone down well with the minority Coptic Christians, who comprise around 10 per cent of the population. It has, apparently, also been well received among Sufi Muslims, who are largely unaligned with the main Islamist parties — chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Nour— the hardline Salafi coalition. Both these candidates have not opposed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the panel comprising Egypt’s de facto rulers, following Mr. Mubarak’s exit.

The Muslim Brotherhood — the most organised among the pro-revolution parties, commanding unparalleled street power, has emerged as the most formidable obstacle for the old-guard remnants, aspiring to return to the political center-stage. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsy, has been running a well organised and heavily attended national campaign. However, questions are being asked about the support that the Brothers can muster outside their core Islamist constituencies.

Even the Islamist supporters outside the Brotherhood’s ranks are divided. Instead of Mr.Morsy, the Salafi Dawa — an ultraconservative outfit — has decided to pitch for Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, an independent, but moderate Islamist. Mr. Fotouh was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood last year after he unilaterally announced his decision to run for the presidency.

Mr. Fotouh’s message of moderation and inclusivity, and rejection of SCAF has been adequately conveyed during the course of a slick campaign, which has also found considerable support among the intelligentsia and the youth, symbolised by the endorsement of his candidacy by Wael Ghoneim, the Google executive who played a key role in igniting the anti-Mubarak uprising. Mr. Fotouh’s critics, however, question his message of unity, after the Salafi Dawa declared its support for his candidacy.

In the non-Islamist camp, Hamdeen Sabbahi has emerged as the “dark horse” during the tail-end of the presidential campaign that ended on Monday. Drawing inspiration from Nasser, Mr. Sabbahi’s consistent opposition, first against the late Anwar Sadat, and then Mr. Mubarak, has pitched him firmly in the pro-revolution camp. Mr. Sabbahi’s critics however, point to his lack of experience in administration, in comparison to seasoned “law and order” heavyweights such as Mr. Shafiq, and Mr. Moussa, the veteran diplomat.

Outside polling stations, it was evident from the animated conversations that broke out among those awaiting their turn that a deeply divided verdict was, most likely, in the offing. “Sure it is going to be a run-off between the top two candidates because I don’t think can get 50 per cent of vote,” said Ahmed Salam, referring to the 50 per cent voting threshold that candidates have to cross for an outright victory.

Many young people said that they were tossing between Mr. Fotouh and Mr. Morsy as their favoured candidate, while still others pitched for Mr. Sabbahi.

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