Polls opened at 8am (0500 GMT) across the country. At one polling station - a school in Cairo's Manial district - banners had been hung on the gate by government supporters proclaiming "Yes to Mubarak for the sake of prosperity".

In the first half-hour of voting, only four young women showed up to vote - but there were no locks on the ballot boxes, so polling officials refused to allow any votes to be cast.

Reporting from Cairo, Aljazeera correspondent Leena al-Ghadban said voter turnout on Wednesday morning was low, pointing out that some citizens had decided not to vote.

Some organisations tracking the elections issued initial reports stating that no voters or judges had shown up in at least two electoral committees in the new Egypt neighbourhood, the correspondent reported.

Kifaya protest

 

Coinciding with the vote, the opposition movement Kifaya (Enough), whose protests have marked the run-up to the election, is to hold another anti-Mubarak demonstration on Wednesday at Cairo's main square.

 

Aljazeera has learned that Kifaya will stage the rally at 12pm (0900 GMT) to underscore its boycott of the elections and its rejection of any vote for Mubarak.

Nour has emerged as the most
serious challenger to Mubarak

In Mansura city, hometown of al-Ghad Party's Ayman Nour, a fierce race is expected as almost all the political parties in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Wafd Party, are represented.

Aljazeera reporter Amr al-Kahky, on hand at the Ibn Luqman school, the biggest polling centre in Mansura city with 3.2 million voters registered, described the turnout there as low.

But he said he expected more voters to show up later.

From Minyah, where about 1.8 million voters are registered to vote, Aljazeera correspondent Samir Omar said voter turnout was good.

Complaints 

Aljazeera has learned that the national party hired buses to transfer citizens to polling centres to support Mubarak.
 
Some al-Ghad Party sources also told Aljazeera that the governorate was mobilising citizens in buses to vote for the incumbent.

However, the information had not been confirmed, the correspondent said. 
 
Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 24 years, is expected to easily win a fifth six-year term in the vote.

But his government says the decision to allow competitors to run against him signals a move towards greater democracy.

Ink concerns

A voter shows his finger dipped
in indelible ink

Aljazeera's office in Cairo has also received reports that al-Ghad and al-Wafd parties in Port Said and Giza have submitted complaints that electoral officers did not apply indelible ink on the fingers of voters.

The indelible ink is the main guarantee that a single voter will not cast multiple ballots, the correspondent, Hussain Abd al-Ghani, said.

The two parties have also complained that the ink used could be easily removed from voters' fingers in some areas, he said.

Indelible ink is supposed to stain fingers of voters for at least 24 hours, he added.

Aljazeera has also received complaints from Upper Egypt, or southern Egypt, that 60% to 80% of the supervising judicial committees' members are connected to an association which is directly under the authority of the government's executive arm.

Two main rivals

Nine candidates are running against the 77-year-old leader but only two are considered significant - Nour of al-Ghad Party and Numan Gumaa of al-Wafd Party.

But the country's judges - tasked with supervising the poll - have already warned that they will not endorse the result of the vote, amid suspicion the government will seek to swell an expected low turnout to boost Mubarak's legitimacy.

The country's 9865 polling stations are due to close at 10pm (1900 GMT) to allow Egypt's 32 million registered voters to take part in the poll.

Egyptian public television showed the first pictures of people

casting their ballots.

 

Under pressure

 

Mubarak has urged all Egyptians to vote after coming under intense international and domestic pressure for political reform.

 

Polling will be supervised by thousands of judges as well as

delegates from the candidates' parties but the electoral commission has independent monitors from polling stations, fuelling opposition fears the government has something to hide.

 

Egypt introduced pluralism with
a constitutional amendment

According to independent estimates, turnout reached barely 10% in the previous plebiscite won by Mubarak. The man dubbed "the last pharaoh" was re-elected in 1999 with 93.79% of the vote.

 

After three weeks of campaigning, the fiery leader of the liberal Ghad Party - 40-year-old Nour - emerged as the most serious challenge to Mubarak and his most virulent critic.

 

Although he managed to raise his profile as the leading

opposition candidate, many observers predict second spot could be clinched by Gumaa, who chairs the liberal Wafd Party.

 

Critics have charged that Gumaa is a token opposition candidate who was prodded into standing by Mubarak's ruling party to strip Nour of votes.

 

The seven other candidates are virtually unknown.

 

Regional impact

 

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said on Tuesday he expected the country's first pluralist presidential election to

promote democratic change elsewhere in the region.

 

The Muslim Brotherhood was not
allowed to field candidates

Observers noted that despite restrictions on the opposition and the survival of many features of Mubarak's autocratic government, the campaign was relatively fair and witnessed unprecedented freedom of tone in the media.

 

For the first time, emboldened editorialist and commentators

took swipes at Mubarak himself, accusing him of corruption and demanding he step down.

 

The authorities have warned they would not tolerate protests - officially banned in Egypt - on election day.

 

The banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood - the country's largest opposition force - was barred from fielding candidates in the election and stopped stopped short of throwing their weight behind one of the 10 contenders.

Positives

Head of the Aljazeera office in Cairo, Hussain Abd al-Ghani, reported that head of the higher electoral committee has surprisingly allowed civil society organisations to monitor the voting process from inside the electoral committees.

Al-Wafd party's Numan Gumaa is
likely to finish second in the race

This is the main positive development that has so far taken place in the voting process and in covering the first multi-candidate presidential elections in Egypt, he added. 


The decision has actually been applied in a big number of committees, Aljazeera learned.


Aljazeera has also learned that some judges have allowed representatives of civil society organisations to enter the committees, while others have allowed them to only enter the courtyards of the schools, the polling centres, but not inside the committees.