Cairo - Determined to end decades of authoritarian rule, millions of Egyptians on Wednesday waited patiently in long lines outside polling stations across the nation to freely chose their first president since last year's ouster of longtime ruler and close US ally Hosni Mubarak.
"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.
Thirteen candidates, who include Islamists, liberals and Mubarak regime figures, are contesting the election. No outright winner is expected to emerge from the two-day vote starting. So, a runoff between the two top finishers will be held June 16-17. The winner will be announced on June 21.
"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."
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 generals who have taken over from Mubarak after an 18-day uprising forced him to step down 15 months ago have promised to hand over power by 01 July, ending a turbulent transitional period defined by deadly street clashes, a faltering economy, a dramatic surge of crime and human rights abuses.
The military has said it has no intention to cling on to power, but it is not clear what authority it wants to retain after the election of a new president. The generals have said they have no preferred candidate, but they are widely thought to be favouring Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and Mubarak's last prime minister who has steadily gained in opinion polls over the past week.
Other front-runners are Mubarak's foreign minister of 10 years Amr Moussa, Mohammed Morsi of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians.
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.