Islamists were on course to win Egypt’s first free presidential election for 5,000 years today after exit polls suggested a first round victory.
Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi appeared to have taken the lead after around 25 million people cast their votes over two days.
It was the first democratic poll since the dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed followed the Arab Spring revolution in February 2011.
Progressive liberals who spearheaded the uprising had hoped for a secular leader, but the most populated country in the Arab World seems to be on course to elect a traditional religious leader.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party already dominates parliament after gaining 40 per cent of the vote in legislative elections earlier this year.
‘Victory is in sight,’ said Yasser Ali, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘The people of Egypt appear to be voting for their president in the same way that they voted for their parliament.
‘People want social justice, and that is what the Freedom and Justice Party is offering.’
Despite such confident words, many fear that Islamic rule will lead to a host of problems including the suppression of women’s rights.
Two candidates are expected to go forward for the second round, and early indications are that the runner-up is Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak’s Prime Minister.
The possibility of a politician so closely associated with the old order becoming president has also caused huge controversy.
Opponents have pledged to take to the street if Mubarak is simply replaced by someone who figured prominently in his unelected government.
No formal result will be announced until Tuesday, but exit polls have been carried out by a number of organisations, including the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
With votes unofficially counted from almost all of the roughly 13,100 polling stations, Morsi has around 25 percent of the poll and Shafiq 23 percent. This would put both in the head-to-head in June.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak, but has huge grassroots support across Egypt, which remains a deeply religious country.
Essam el-Erian, another Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said: ‘We are confident that the next president of Egypt is Mohammed Morsi.’
If this does happen, Islamists will control almost all the country’s political institutions, but not the still hugely powerful army.
Some liberal activists have boycotted the vote because they believe it has already been hijacked by the ruling military council, who will decide how much power the new president has.
But for most this is a hugely important day and the most historic 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.
And for Egypt’s most conservative Islamists, the country’s first competitive presidential election has been a test of their political savvy as they try to plant the seeds for turning the country into an Islamic state.
The Salafis, known for their no-compromise, literal interpretation of the faith, are political newcomers.
They long concentrated on preaching and many of them shunned involvement in politics, believing it would require sinful concessions. Some of their clerics even said Western-style democracy itself is dangerous since it could override God’s rule and laws.
But in the landmark presidential vote, the first round of which was held Wednesday and Thursday, Egypt’s Salafis tested the waters of electoral maneuvering as they tried to choose which of two main Islamist candidates to back. They experienced fissures and struggled to coalesce, but are still having a strong impact.
Some have opted to back liberal Salafi candidate Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh who has relatively moderate views while others have chosen Mohammed Morsi.
Unlike the Brotherhood – Egypt’s most organised political force in existence for 80 years – Salafis have historically been more concerned with religious outreach, not politics.
Their vision of Islam is more hard-line and puritanical than most members of the Brotherhood, which groups a wider spectrum. Salafi women, for example, almost universally wear the “niqab,” a black robe and veil that covers the entire body, leaving only a slit for the eyes. Generally, Brotherhood women, in contrast, wear simply a scarf over their hair.
The Salafis vision of a state includes banning the sale of alcohol, segregating the sexes and closing down beaches where women wear bikinis.