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Cairo - Egyptians, choosing their leader freely for the first time in their history, voted for a second day on Thursday in what appears to be a fraught contest between Islamists and former officials of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
After six decades under authoritarian, military-backed rule, Egypt's 50-million voters may decide to entrust the most populous Arab nation to an Islamist president for the next four years, as well as the Islamist-led assembly they chose earlier.
But secular figures like ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa, 75, and Mubarak's last premier Ahmed Shafiq, 70, are in with a chance, appealing to Egyptians wary of radical change.
With first-round voting almost over, Egyptians seemed increasingly polarised between those determined to avoid handing the presidency back to men linked to Mubarak's era and those who fear Islamists could sweep governing institutions.
Some voiced fears of a backlash on the streets, particularly if Shafiq, who like Mubarak was air force commander, triumphs - protesters hurled stones and shoes at Shafiq when he voted in Cairo on Wednesday in the only notable election violence.
“If Shafiq or Moussa wins, they will create a revolution. Everyone will go down to Tahrir again,” said one voter, Sherif Abdelaziz, 30, who backs the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi.
The mother of Khaled Said, the activist whose death in 2010 at the hands of police helped galvanise anti-Mubarak protests, also derided “feloul”, or remnants of the old order.
“Khaled died for his country. Youth like him are entitled to a better future. If any of the feloul win, it would be because the vote was rigged. Egyptians will never retreat from their revolution,” Said's mother Leila told Reuters by telephone.
The strongest Islamist candidates are Mohamed Mursi, 60, of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential political group, and ex-Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, 60.
Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy, 57, is a dark horse in the race.
Some voters voice disappointment with the performance of parliament, where the Muslim Brotherhood's party has the biggest bloc. The assembly has been unable to assert itself over the government appointed by the generals who took over from Mubarak.
Alarmed by rising crime, disorder and a failing economy, some Egyptians favour a man with government or military experience, even if he harks back to the Mubarak era.
Shafiq and Moussa exchanged angry allegations before polls closed.
“He (Shafiq) has started to use old methods, very bad methods, attacking the families of the candidates, my family specifically, spreading rumours that we have withdrawn and spreading rumours... that are all lies,” Moussa told Reuters. “It is undemocratic... so I call on him now to withdraw.”
Shafiq responded: “How can I pull out if all the voting centres say Amr Moussa is finished and has no chance?”
Voters queued patiently, determined not to miss their chance to influence the first round. The government declared Thursday a public holiday to allow state employees to cast their vote.
If no one wins more than half the votes needed for outright victory, the top two will contest a run-off on June 16 and 17.
First-round results may be clear by Saturday, but an official announcement is not due until Tuesday.
According to election consultant Ossama Kamel, fewer abuses have occurred in this vote than in the parliamentary poll that ended in January, partly because of lessons learned then.
“We have seen a lot better control of campaigning on election day than during the parliamentary vote when there were lots of violations, with candidates and their supporters hustling people outside polling stations,” he told journalists. - Reuters