By HAMZA HENDAWI and MAGGIE MICHAEL
The Muslim Brotherhood said Thursday that its candidate was leading in exit polls from Egypt's landmark presidential election, as official counting began after two days of voting to choose a successor to ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.
In stations around the country, workers cracked open ballot boxes and started the count after polls closed Thursday night, in Egypt's first truly competitive presidential election. There are five prominent candidates in a field of 13, but none is expected to win outright in the first round. A run-off between the two leading contenders would be held June 16-17.
A Brotherhood spokesman said the group's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was the leader in exit polls conducted by Brotherhood campaign workers nationwide. Morsi's spokesman, Murad Mohammed Ali, declined to give specific percentages.
"The Egyptian people always amaze us," said Ali. "This is above our expectations."
The reliability of the Brotherhood's polls could not be confirmed. Regional television channels, citing their own exit polls, also placed Morsi as the top finisher, with rivals Ahmed Shafiq and Hamdeen Sabahi vying for second post.
Shafiq, a former air force commander, was Mubarak's last prime minister and was himself forced from his post by protests soon after his former boss. Opponents brand him as a "feloul" or "remnant" of the old, autocratic regime, but he has drawn support from Egyptians who crave stability or fear Islamists.
Sabahi is a leftist who had been a dark horse but gained steadily in opinion polls over the past week, attracting Egyptians who want neither an Islamist or a former regime figure.
The Brotherhood is hoping that a victory in the presidential race will seal its political rise since its longtime opponent Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11, 2011 in a wave of protests. The group won just under half the seats in parliament in elections held late last year, establishing it as the biggest political bloc.
But it had troubles in the presidential campaign. Its first choice for candidate, deputy leader Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified because of a Mubarak-era conviction. Morsi was the Brotherhood's second-choice and was seen as less charismatic.
He also faced competition for religious voters from Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who split from the Brotherhood last year and has also drawn liberals with his more inclusive vision.
One of the prominent secular candidates, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, made an emotional appeal three hours before voting ended, urging supporters to get to the polls. The last-minute call suggested his exit polls were not going his way.
Earlier, Moussa gave a surprise interview to Al-Arabiya television, calling on Shafiq _ his main rival for the secular vote _ to drop out of the race. Rattled with his hair unkempt, Moussa launched a scathing attack on Shafiq, saying that if elected Shafiq would "recreate" the Mubarak regime.
Both Shafiq and the Brotherhood's Morsi have repeatedly spoken of the dangers, real or imaginary, of the other becoming president. Morsi has said there would be massive street protests if a "feloul" _ a remnant of the Mubarak regime _ wins, arguing it could only be the result of rigging.
Shafiq, on his part, has said it would be "unacceptable" if an Islamist takes the presidential office, echoing the rhetoric of Mubarak, his longtime mentor who devoted much of his 29-year rule to fighting Islamists. Still, Shafiq's campaign has said it would accept the election's result.
If a run-off is held, the final result would be announced on June 21. The generals who took over from the 84-year-old Mubarak have promised to hand over power by July, but many fear that they would try to retain significant powers after a new president is in office.