CAIRO -- Egyptians began voting today in a historic election to replace deposed leader Hosni Mubarak with a new president to free the nation from military rule, economic turmoil, rising crime and frustrations that the uprising that inspired rebellions across the Arab world has not lived up to its ideals.
Long lines stretched from polling stations in Alexandria, Cairo, Suez and in the vast southern deserts. Egyptians were choosing among 13 candidates to move beyond the authoritarian rule that most of the population of 82 million was born into. Umbrellas popped up to block the sun as voters waited to cast ballots amid soldiers and police.
"This is a great responsibility for every Egyptian," said Ahmed Rashid, a market worker who traveled two hours to vote on Cairo's southern outskirts. "Each vote counts. This is the freedom we've been aspiring toward. I was so excited I nearly sunk all my finger into the ink after I voted."
Poll figures are unreliable, but the leading candidates appear to be two Islamists and two officials connected to the Mubarak era. Muslim Brotherhood contender Mohamed Morsi is battling Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh for the Islamist vote, while former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik is challenging former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa for secular support. After a late surge, nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi was expected to do well among liberals and leftists.
The election marks an end to three decades of Mubarak's corrupt police state. The 84-year-old toppled leader -- standing trial for conspiracy to commit murder -- epitomized the Arab strongman who over the last 15 months has been upended by revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Rebellions are still playing out in Syria and Bahrain. But the Middle East has slipped into a new, uncertain era as emerging strands of political Islam compete with secular and liberal forces to shape national destinies.
The joy Egyptians exuded after Mubarak’s overthrow has been tempered by months of protests, crackdowns and bloodshed. Activists have criticized the military leaders now running the country for being a thinly disguised extension of the old regime. It is unclear how much control the generals will cede and whether the new president will break from the past or be limited by an army that has been the country's shadow power since 1952.
"We’ve been humiliated enough. We have to rid ourselves of this corruption, and our revolution must continue," said Ahmed Ali Hussein, a retired textile merchant dressed in a white tunic and embroidered skullcap. "It was God’s help that brought us to this day. It's like we’re in a new land with new men."
-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo
Amro Hassan of the Times Cairo bureau contributed to this report.