The United States on Wednesday hailed the start of the first free presidential election in Egypt as a "very important milestone" in the country's transition to democracy.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the event "historic" and "stunning" with 12 candidates competing to succeed president Hosni Mubarak who was ousted by popular protests in February last year.
"I don't know if you've seen the ballot. It's really quite stunning. It's about this long with many, many candidates," Nuland told reporters.
"Today does mark the start of a first round of Egypt's historic presidential elections. It's a very important milestone for Egypt's transition. Egyptians are voting. And we look forward to the outcome.
Nuland said there was an expectation that the two-day election could be followed by a run-off.
The spokeswoman expected the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been running the country since the overthrow of Mubarak, will cede power to whoever wins the elections.
"I don't have a crystal ball, but they've said that they will turn over power to a civilian elected president. That is our expectation, that they will keep their word in that regard," she said.
Islamists and secularists were vying for power with competing visions of an Egypt liberated of Mubarak's iron grip.
Leading contenders include former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who is seen as an experienced politician and diplomat but like Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, is accused of belonging to the old regime
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Morsi faces competition from Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Islamist movement who portrays himself as a consensus choice with a wide range of support.
Turnout appeared lower than the parliamentary elections held between November and January that brought Islamists to the forefront of politics with a big legislative win.