Egypt's first free presidential election could be heading for a contest between an Islamist candidate and a former air force chief who was a leading member of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's last government.
According to results from 25 out of 27 areas – put together by the Ahram Online news organization – Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi was ahead with 26.48 percent of the vote, while Mubarak's former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, was just behind at 24.74 percent.
Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy was in third, according to Ahram's figures, at 20.01 percent. They and the other candidates are vying for two places in a final run-off election on June 16 and 17.
Official results are not expected until Tuesday.
'I'm in shock'
Young Egyptian revolutionaries who helped topple Mubarak now face what they see as a dispiriting choice between a conservative Islamist and a hardline member of the old guard.
"To choose between Shafiq or Mursi is like being asked do you want to commit suicide by being set on fire or jump in a shark tank," Adel Abdel Ghafar wrote on Twitter.
Tareq Farouq, 34, a Cairo driver, told Reuters he was in shock. "How could this happen? The people don't want Mursi or Shafiq. We're sick of both. They are driving people back to Tahrir Square," he said, referring to the home of the long-running protest camp.
This week's first-round vote has polarized Egyptians between those determined to avoid handing the presidency back to a man from Mubarak's era and those fearing an Islamist monopoly of ruling institutions.
The election marks a crucial step in a messy and often bloody transition to democracy, overseen by a military council that has pledged to hand power to a new president by July 1.
The second round threatens further turbulence. Opponents of Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, have vowed to take to the streets if he is elected, Reuters reported. But to supporters, Shafiq's military background offers reassurance that he can restore security, a major demand of the population 15 months after Mubarak's ouster.
Many Christians, who form about a tenth of Egypt's 82 million people, complained of discrimination in Mubarak's day, but were likely to have voted for Shafiq in preference to an Islamist.
A victory for Mursi, Reuters said, could worsen tensions between resurgent Islamists and the powerful army, which sees itself as the guardian of the state.
If Mursi becomes president, Islamists will control most ruling institutions – but not the military – in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, consolidating electoral gains made by fellow-Islamists in other Arab countries in the past year.
"Now Egyptians will have to choose between the revolution and the counter-revolution. The next vote will be equivalent to holding a referendum on the revolution," Mohamed Beltagy, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's party, told Reuters.
Israel has nervously watched the Islamist rise, especially in Egypt, its old enemy until a 1979 peace treaty. Mursi vaguely advocates a "review" of the pact, but the Brotherhood says it will not tear it up. Shafiq has vowed to uphold it.
The Brotherhood announced early on Friday that the run-off would be between Shafiq and Mursi after almost all votes were counted, Reuters said.
A member of Shafiq's campaign also said Mursi and Shafiq were in the lead, but that counting was not complete, Reuters reported. Aides to other candidates consistently put Mursi ahead but gave shifting tallies for second place through the night.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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