The first day of Egypt’s historic presidential elections appears to have passed without incident. Rising voter turnout throughout the day led Hatem Begato, secretary-general of the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC), to extend voting hours by one hour to 9pm to accommodate the increasing numbers.
Out of 13 official candidates, leading contenders belong to three principal ideological fronts. The principal secular candidates include Ahmed Shafiq, ousted president Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, and Amr Moussa, a Mubarak-era foreign minister and former Arab League chief.
The two key Islamist candidates, meanwhile, are Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and moderate Islamist, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.
The increasingly popular Hamdeen Sabbahi, a Nasserist, represents the leftist front.
Egyptians have not participated in presidential elections since 2005, when Mubarak attained a whopping 87 per cent of the vote in polls widely perceived to have been rigged in his favour.
Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections late last year saw high voter turnout, with more than 30 million Egyptians – 60 per cent of eligible voters – taking part. Those polls were swept by Islamist parties led by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
Voter participation on Wednesday was expected to be high, with observers predicting that between 30 and 40 million citizens – out of a total 53 million eligible voters – would take part.
"I predict that around 60 per cent of eligible voters will take part," Saad Eddin Ibrahim, prominent Egyptian human rights advocate, told Ahram Online. "That's a good amount even by democratic standards."
It appears that such predictions may not have been vindicated in all of Egypt's governorates, however, with voter numbers appearing considerably lower in some rural areas.
Some commentators have blamed hot weather – temperatures in Cairo reached 35 Celsius on Wednesday – while others blamed the long distances between polling stations, and the associated travel expenses, for the low numbers.
"I'm not voting. I'm from Assiut in Upper Egypt and can't afford to travel back to my hometown to vote," said one Cairo taxi driver. "The trip alone would cost LE400."
Some voters from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt's Western Desert, meanwhile, reportedly had to travel up to 12 kilometres to reach their designated polling stations.
Other would-be voters voluntarily chose not to cast ballots. Numerous residents of two villages in the Assiut governorate – Beni Idriss and Al-Manshaa Al-Soghra – boycotted the vote to protest months-long shortages of bread and butane gas.
Reported breaches & poll monitoring
Reports of electoral violations during Wednesday's polling, meanwhile, were minimal compared to elections held under the Mubarak regime. According to the media, breaches reported on Wednesday included vote buying in Tanta; limited scuffles outside various polling stations; names missing from Nasr City voter lists; and reported bullying in the Canal city of Suez.
The SPEC, for its part, confirmed that it had "strictly" dealt with violations committed by certain presidential candidates and their supporters who defied a ban on last-minute campaigning outside polling stations.
"There were three incidents in which candidates and their supporters violated electoral rules," SPEC head Farouk Sultan stated at a press conference. "The commission has lodged complaints against them with the public prosecution."
Notably, Morsi, Shafiq and Abul-Fotouh have all given interviews recently in contravention of the ban on eleventh-hour campaigning.
Sultan also stated that several judges had pulled out of the monitoring process "for health reasons," denying earlier reports suggesting that they had been forcibly removed.
Rumours of other violations, especially the reported death of a police officer in Cairo's working-class Rod Al-Farag district, were put sleep after the SPEC's Bagato officially refuted them. Bagato clarified that a police officer had been killed on Tuesday in an incident unrelated to Wednesday's polling.
Egypt's ruling Supreme Coucnil of the Armed Forces (SCAF) carefully monitored the electoral process on Wednesday. According to state media, the SCAF's two top officials – Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Chief-of-Staff Sami Anan – followed the polling from defence ministry headquarters in Abbasiya.
"The SCAF is following procedures everywhere, making sure that all constituencies are secured and no violations occur of any kind," said SCAF member Mohamed El-Assar.
In terms of voting trends in Cairo and other governorates, observers say it is too early to predict final results, since many voters appear to be making their decisions at the very last minute.
"Opinion polls indicate that many voters have yet to make up their minds," Ibrahim said on the eve of the polls. "We are most likely in for a surprise."
"My relative changed his mind about who he would vote for while waiting on line to cast his ballot," said one local journalist.
Some media sources suggested that voters in certain middle- and upper-income Cairo districts – such as Zamalek and 6 October City - demonstrated a preference for the three secular candidates: Moussa, Shafiq and Sabbahi.
"I'm voting for Moussa, as he's the only candidate with the experience needed to restore Egypt’s economy," said Samir, a Zamalek resident.
"I was torn between Moussa and Sabahi, but finally decided on the latter, as he is our best option as a fresh face," said 6 October resident Said Mamdouh.
Working-class districts and Egypt's Coptic minority, meanwhile, appeared strongly inclined towards Sabbahi and Shafiq.
"Shafiq's a strongman; he can stand up to the politically-dominant Islamists," Magdi, a Copt from Cairo's Shubra district, told Ahram Online. "That’s why I'm voting for him."
Shafiq also appeared the candidate of choice in Cairo's Manshiyat Nasser district, another working-class area with a large Coptic-Christian constituency.
Sabbahi, too, however, seems to enjoy considerable support among Egypt's Coptic community.
"He's a man of the people who was part of the revolution," 24-year-old Michael Hanna, a Copt from the capital's low-income Mokattam district, said of the Nasserist candidate.
Outside of Cairo, voting trends were no less difficult to decipher. In Alexandria, Egypt's second city, popular districts saw high voter turnout compared to middle- and upper middle-class areas. Overall voting trends, however, appeared to vary sharply from district to district, making predictions all but impossible.
In the northern Sinai Peninsula, especially the city of Al-Arish, and in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Qena, Shafiq is reportedly leading the race.
"Shafiq seems to be dominating the vote so far in these places, especially among the predominantly Coptic-Christian residents," Al-Ahram correspondent Mahmoud Dessouki reported. He added, however, that elderly voters appeared to harbour a liking for Nasserist candidate Sabbahi, who they tend to associate with Egypt's golden age under late president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
In the Upper Egyptian Assiut governorate, home to some 2.8 million eligible voters, voter turnout was lower than for parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, observers there say the vote appears split between Shafiq and Morsi.
In southern Sinai, meanwhile, Moussa appears to be the candidate of choice. Observers attribute this to the fact that the ex-Arab League chief was the only candidate to hold a campaign rally in the remote governorate, which only contains some 63,000 eligible voters.
According to judges in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag, voter turnout on the first day of elections was low. They added, however, that, based on their own observations, Shafiq and Moussa appeared to be the most popular candidates there.
Ultimately, analysts and observers agree, it is impossible to make any concrete predictions after only one day of voting. The second and final day of polling is likely to bring with it new surprises, they note, pointing out that, since Thursday has been declared a national holiday, voters were likely to turn out in much greater numbers.