Egypt made history on Wednesday as it kicked off its first free presidential election and put its fragile democratic transition to the test. Just over 50 million eligible citizens are expected to cast their votes over the course of two days. The contest is the culmination of what has been a complicated, and often violent, transitional period.
Local newspapers hailed the arrival of the closely-watched election, which marks one of the final steps in the transition of power to a civilian-led government, from the military council that has ruled the country since the fall resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak last year.
Independent Al Masry Al Yom wrote “Egypt Chooses in First Day Vote the President of the Second Republic,” while the state-run Al Ahram showed a similar headline, but emphasized that a constitution had yet to be written.
Troops were deployed in significant numbers throughout the county to secure polling centers. Overseeing the political transition since Mubarak’s ouster, the military council called on citizens to accept the outcome of the vote, whatever it may be.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time (2:00 a.m. New York time) and will remain open until 8:00 p.m. (2:00 p.m.). Unprecedented in its history, Egyptians will choose from 12 candidates, representing various ideologies but all promising a swift return to national stability.
Results are unlikely to trickle through immediately, and pre-election surveys have proved inconsistent in the past. The count itself is to be completed by May 26, and the formal announcement of the winner will follow on May 29. If no candidate is able to secure at least fifty percent of the vote—an event seen as unlikely—then a run-off will be held on June 16 and 17.
The economy has been a victim of the political quarrels over the past 15 months, with foreign direct investment grinding to a halt, and tourism revenue seeing sharp declines. Both are important drivers of economic growth, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sees slowing to 1.5 percent this year. Official figures, however, have pointed to a sharp rebound in the first quarter of this year, with GDP expanding by some 5.2 percent.
Foreign currency reserves have dropped more than 50 percent since January 2011, leaving little more than two months of import cover and speculation that devaluation of the Egyptian pound is inevitable.
Egypt is home to the Arab World’s largest population, and before the uprising, was a popular Middle East destination for foreign investors.
The Egyptian Stock Exchange is classified as an emerging market by indices firm MSCI and has witnessed a strong rebound in 2012, gaining 34 percent. The picture has been a similar one for related exchange-traded funds that offer exposure, such as Market Vectors Egypt in the United States.
Yousef Gamal El-Din is CNBC's Middle East Correspondent and contributes to the channel’s flagship shows, as well as analysis for CNBC.com.
Stay in touch with him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/youseftv @youseftv