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Egyptians get chance of a lifetime as historic presidential vote begins

After a lifetime of being told who will rule them, Egyptians dived enthusiastically into the uncertainty of the Arab world's first competitive presidential race Wednesday, wrestling with a polarizing choice between secularists rooted in Hosni Mubarak's old autocracy and Islamists hoping to infuse the state with religion.

Waiting in long lines, voters were palpably excited at the chance to decide their country's path in the vote, the fruit of last year's stunning popular revolt that overthrew Mubarak after 29 years in power. For the last 60 years, Egypt's presidents ran unchallenged in yes-or-no referendums in which few bothered to participate.

Still, the choices raised worries among many about whether real democracy will emerge. The final result, likely to come after a runoff next month, will only open a new chapter of political struggle.

Mohammed Salah, 26, emerged grinning from a poll station, fresh from casting his ballot. "Before, they used to take care of that for me," he said. "Today, I am choosing for myself."

Medhat Ibrahim, 58, who suffers from cancer, had tears in his eyes. "I might die in a matter of months, so I came for my children, so they can live," he said as he waited to vote in a poor district of this capital city. "We want to live better, like human beings."

He later came out flashing a finger stained with the blue ink used to prevent multiple voting. "Mubarak's policies gave me cancer," he said, referring to the decline in health care under the last regime. "Now I got my revenge."

Adding to the drama, this election is up in the air. The reliability of polls is uncertain, and four of the 13 candidates have bounced around the top spots, leaving no clear front-runner.

None is likely to win outright in Wednesday and today's balloting, so the top two vote-getters enter a runoff June 16-17, with the victor announced June 21.

The two secular front-runners are both veterans of Mubarak's regime -- former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

The main Islamist contenders are Mohammed Morsi of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians.

Some voters backed Mubarak-era veterans, believing they can bring stability after months of rising crime, a crumbling economy and bloody riots. Others were horrified by the thought, believing the "feloul" -- or "remnants" of the regime -- will keep Egypt locked in dictatorship and thwart democracy.

Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, saw their chance to lead a country where they were repressed for decades and to implement their version of Islamic law. Their critics recoiled, fearing theocracy.

Some saw an alternative to both in a leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, who has claimed the mantle of Egypt's first president, the populist Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

The political turmoil is far from over. The generals who took over from Mubarak have promised to hand authority to the election winner by the end of June. But many fear that it will try to maintain a considerable amount of political say. The fundamentals of Mubarak's police state remain in place.