Candidates in what is being billed as the first free presidential election in Egypt's history were given their first chance to register on Saturday, more than a year after Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office.
Voting will be held over two days starting on May 23 and will go to a second round runoff if there is no outright winner. The election will mark the final stage of the transition to civilian rule from a military council which took control after a popular uprising ended Mubarak's rule on February 11.
Candidates who have declared they will run include high-profile figures such as Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, the former head of the Arab League Amr Moussa, and an ex-member of the Muslim Brotherhood Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh.
In the absence of reliable opinion polls and given the novelty of the presidential vote, analysts say the outcome is difficult to predict. However, many people say that Moussa may have the edge because of his name recognition and long political experience in the public eye.
Dozens of others went to the election committee office in Cairo on Saturday, the first day for official registration, in order to collect the documents needed to enter the contest. The closing date for nominations is April 8.
"The first decision I will take as president is to immediately activate security on the streets and address the economic deterioration," Shafiq told reporters after receiving his registration documents. "I will also start a huge investment project to provide jobs for youth," he added.
Shafiq, a former air force commander like Mubarak, was touching on two of voters' biggest concerns, namely lax security on the streets and unemployment. Shafiq was appointed prime minister by Mubarak shortly before he was deposed and briefly held the post after Mubarak was ousted.
The election committee said 158 people had asked about registration procedures, though none had officially registered, the official state news agency reported.
"We have started submitting our documents and it is an ongoing process," said Hesham Youssef, campaign manager for Moussa, who served as Mubarak's foreign minister in the 1990s before moving to head the Arab League until last year.
Youssef said Moussa's team would pursue both methods available to independent candidates in order to qualify for the vote, namely gathering 30,000 signatures in his support and securing the backing of 30 members of parliament.
INDEPENDENTS KEEN TO RUN
Parties represented in parliament can field a candidate without going through that process.
Among those queuing on Saturday morning was Sheikh Abdel Baset Soliman, a 47-year-old former employee at the Religious Endowments Ministry, who said: "I am running for the position to apply (Islamic) sharia law, and my programme is based on ruling through justice."
Another candidate, 51-year-old Mohamed Hussein al-Batal, a government worker and resident of Mansoura, in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, said: "The conditions for the elections are tough but not impossible."
For most of his 30 years in office, Mubarak was elected by single candidate referendums. But in 2005, after pressure from the United States, a close ally, Egypt held its first multi-candidate presidential race. Independent observers said voting was littered with abuses, however, and that rules ensured there was no real challenge to the incumbent.
Egypt held a three-stage parliamentary election after Mubarak was removed from office. The vote, which ended in January, saw the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party secure more than 43 percent of the seats in parliament.
Egypt's ruling military council has pledged to hand over power by July 1. It has faced street protests and widespread demands that it hand over power to civilians sooner.
Presidents who have held senior military posts led Egypt for six decades until Mubarak was ousted, but the army has promised it will step aside when the new president assumes power. Many Egyptians expect it will continue to play an influential role from the sidelines.
A run-off between the top two presidential contenders will take place on June 16-17 if no candidate wins outright in the first round. Final results will be released on June 21.