CAIRO (AP) — Determined to end decades of authoritarian rule, millions of Egyptians waited patiently in long lines outside polling stations across the nation on Wednesday to freely choose their first president since last year's ouster of longtime ruler and close U.S. 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, 58, 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."
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 Wednesday. 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.
Many of the candidates in the race have called for amendments in Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which most Egyptians continue to view as their nation's number one enemy. Though none will likely to dump the pact, a victory by any of the Islamist or leftist candidates could mean strained ties with Israel and a stronger backing for the Palestinians in the peace process.
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 July 1, 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 favoring 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.
Whoever wins will face the unenviable task of having to tackle a host of formidable problems, ranging from economic, a tenuous security and soaring unemployment. The next president will serve a four-year term.
"May God help the new president," said Zaki Mohammed, a teacher in his 40s as he waited to vote in a district close to the Giza Pyramids. "There will be 82 million pair of eyes watching him."
Another voter in line, tour agent Salah Ali, said: "We need someone who works more than he talks."
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Alexandria, Egypt.