A policeman was shot dead outside a polling station in Cairo today as Egyptians took part in their first free vote to elect a president in their 5000 year history.
The officer was caught up in a gunfight between supporters of rival candidates in the centre of the city on Wednesday morning.
‘The victim was hit in crossfire as he tried to intervene – another man was also seriously wounded,’ said a local police spokesman.
He added: ‘Officers are hunting the perpetrators. The intention is to maintain law and order around all polling stations.’
In the most historic poll since the Arab Spring started last year, vast queues built up outside 13000 polling stations across the country.
Many of the 50 million people eligible to vote took part in the 18-day revolution which saw the dictator Hosni Mubarak deposed in February 2011.
Now 12 candidates are standing in the first round of democratic elections which take place over two days, with a run-off between the two most popular candidates in June.
‘It’s a very moving time for us,’ said Magdy Ibrahimy, a 45-year-old engineer who had been standing outside a primary school voting station in Cairo since 5am.
‘Democracy was the aim of the revolution which brought down Mubarak, and now we want a president chosen by the people. That’s why so many are crying as they prepare to vote’
But, despite the optimism, there were fears that the army who have been ruling since Mubarak’s demise may not respect a free and fair election.
Opponents of the military regime have complained of intimidation, and there have been accusations of a plan to rig the poll.
An army spokesman insisted that there would be ‘no violations of democracy’, and that the result would be respected.
Mohammed Al-Assar added: ‘The participation of citizens in the presidential election is the best guarantee of the transparency and security of the electoral process.’
Monitors were on duty from numerous organisations around the world including the European Commission.
Cassam Uteem, one of the monitors, said: ‘So far so good – people are very keen to vote and this is a very good sign. From what we’ve seen so far everything is on target. Let’s see tomorrow evening.’
Commentators have expressed concerns that Mubarak’s western-backed secular dictatorship will be replaced by an Islamic one, or one that is as repressive as Mubarak’s.
Egypt has the largest population in the Arab World, and has always been considered to be of crucial strategic importance. It only gained full independence from Britain in 1952.
A favourite to go through to the second round is Amr Moussa, who was Mubarak’s foreign minister.
Ahmed Shafiq, who was prime minister in the last days of the Mubarak administration, is also standing.
Islamists are also expected to do very well, following the Muslim Brotherhood winning an overall majority in parliamentary elections earlier this year.
Mohammed Mursi, the head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, is standing, along with Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former party member.
The four old-regime and Islamic candidates are expected to go through, leading liberal progressive voters to fear a return to autocracy.
Results of the first round poll should be available by Saturday, but there will be no formal announcement until May 29th.
If, as expected, no-one wins an overall majority, the second round run-off will take place on June 16th and 17th.
For most of his 29-year rule, Mubarak – like his predecessors – ran unopposed in yes-or-no referendums.
Rampant fraud guaranteed ruling party victories in parliamentary elections. Even when, in 2005, Mubarak let challengers oppose him in elections, he ended up not only trouncing his liberal rival but jailing him.
Egypt’s next president will be the nation’s fifth since the monarchy was toppled following a 1952 coup that ushered in six decades of de facto military rule. Like his three predecessors – Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Mohammed Naguib – Mubarak has a military background.
The election comes less than two weeks before Mubarak, 84, is due to be sentenced after he was tried on charges of complicity in the killing of some 900 protesters during the uprising against his rule.
He also faced corruption charges, along with his two sons, one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa.
Yet some were still unsure who to vote for even as they headed out to cast their ballots.
‘I will vote today, no matter what, it is a historic thing to do, although I don’t really know who I will vote for,’ said Mahmoud Morsy, 23, who then said he would probably pick the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi.
Voters were blitzed by three weeks of official campaigning, which ended on Sunday, and Egypt held its first U.S.-style televised presidential debate. Newspapers carried interviews and campaign adverts. Banners and posters festoon the streets.
Although official campaigning was over, candidates made a final push to get out the vote. Half a dozen minibuses plastered with ‘Yes to Amr Moussa’ – the former Arab League chief bidding for office – offered free rides to polling stations.
None of the 12 candidates is expected to get more than half the votes and win outright in the first round on Wednesday and Thursday, and a run-off between the top two is likely in June.
It is the first time that ordinary Egyptians, ruled down the centuries by pharaohs, sultans, kings and military officers, have a genuine chance to choose their leader.
‘I have not voted before in my life for a president so the experience is quite new and makes me feel like a citizen of this country,’ said Ahmed Ali, a student of pharmaceutical studies in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.
Whoever wins faces a huge task to deliver changes that Egyptians expect to relieve a grim economic outlook. The military that was a pillar of Mubarak’s rule is likely to remain a powerful political force for years.
The army, whose senior ranks control extensive commercial interests, insists it does not want to hang onto power.
‘With these elections, we will have completed the last step in the transitional period,’ General Mohamed el-Assar told a news conference on the eve of voting.
There is little reliable survey data to indicate which candidate will emerge as head of state.
The West, long wary of Islamists, and Israel, worried about its 33-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, are watching to see if proponents of political Islam add to their gains after sweeping most seats in a parliamentary vote that ended in January.
‘Our vote will make Egypt’s voice in the Arab world ring loud and clear,’ said Saad Abed Raboh, a civil servant in his mid-50s voting in Alexandria. ‘For 30 years Egypt’s vote was muted, but now it will be heard because Egyptians will choose their president.’
Many Gulf states are concerned about who will lead the regional heavyweight after their long-time ally Mubarak was ousted. Their conservative monarchies have so far emerged from a wave of Arab uprisings relatively unscathed.
The Brotherhood’s Mursi, trying to allay such worries, pledged in a final rally on Sunday that ‘we will not export our revolution to anyone’.
Mursi was pitched into the race at the last minute after the Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate was ruled out. He may lack charisma, but he can rely on the Brotherhood’s vote machine.
His rivals include Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an Islamist who has drawn support ranging from liberals to hardline Salafi Muslims; Moussa, who was foreign minister before moving to the Arab League and has strong name recognition; and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who like his former boss, once commanded the air force.
A late surge helped Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose ‘Free Officers’ overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and set up the system that has put military men in the presidency for the past 60 years.
Mubarak, under pressure from Washington, his key ally and financial sponsor, to open up politics, staged Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential race in 2005.
But rules barred any realistic challenge to him. Another vote had been due in 2011 but he was toppled by a popular uprising before that.
‘I can die in a matter of months, so I came for my children, so they can live,’ a tearful Medhat Ibrahim, who suffers from cancer, said as he waited to vote in a poor district south of Cairo.
‘We want to live better, like human beings,’ said Ibrahim, a 58-year-old government employee. ‘Now, I got my own back,’ he said after he voted.
‘It’s a miracle,’ said Selwa Abdel-Malik, a 60-year-old Christian from the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria as she was about to vote. ‘And it’s a beautiful feeling too.’