The two surviving candidates in Egypt's presidential election appealed Saturday for support from voters who rejected them as polarizing extremists in the first round even as they faced a new challenge from the third runner-up who contested the preliminary results.
Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, vowed he won't revive the old authoritarian regime as he sought to cast off his image as an anti-revolution figure, while the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, reached out to those fearful of hardline Islamic rule and the rise of a religious state.
Many votes are up for grabs, but the two candidates will have a tough battle wooing the middle ground voters amid calls from activists for a boycott of the divisive vote.
Adding to the uncertainty, Hamdeen Sabahi called for a partial vote recount, citing violations that he claimed could change the outcome, a prospect that may further enflame an already explosive race. Sabahi, a socialist and a champion of the poor, came in third by a margin of some 700,000 votes, leaving him out of the next round to be held on June 16-17.
Many Egyptians were dismayed by the early results, which opened a contest that looked like a throwback to Mubarak's era, a rivalry between a military-rooted strongman promising a firm hand to ensure stability and Islamists who were repressed under the old regime but have become the most powerful political force in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Each candidate has die-hard supporters but is also loathed by significant sectors of the population.
The first round race was tight. Preliminary counts Friday from stations around the country reported by the state news agency gave Morsi 25.3 per cent and Shafiq 24.9 per cent with a less than 100,000-vote difference. The election commission said about 50 per cent of more than 50 million eligible voters turned out for the first round, which had 13 contenders.
A large chunk of the vote, more than 40 per cent, went to candidates who were seen as more in the spirit of the uprising that toppled Mubarak, that is neither from the Brotherhood nor from the so-called "feloul," or "remnants" of the old autocratic regime.
Sabahi came in third with a surprisingly strong showing of 21.5 per cent, followed by Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who broke with the Brotherhood.
Steven Cook, an Egypt expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think-tank , said the outcome of the battles between the two extremes is hard to predict.
"Egypt is following the classic pattern of revolutions. People who made them get frozen out," he said.
He said Shafiq will rely on the same "dynamics" of fanning fears of the Islamists that Mubarak relied on in the past. On the other hand, the Brotherhood will play on the fear of Shafiq's recreating the old regime.
In an effort to broaden his support, Morsi met with public figures and political groups Saturday, and tried to present himself as the candidate for all Egyptians. But in a sign of the tough task ahead for the Brotherhood, three of the presidential candidates, including Sabahi, didn't turn up.
The Brotherhood won close to 50 per cent of the seats in parliament in the country's first parliamentary elections in the post-Mubarak era. But the fundamentalist group's credibility has taken a hard hit since because of the legislature's performance and the Brotherhood's reneging on a string of public pledges, including not to run a presidential candidate.
Speaking after the meeting, Morsi said that his group respects democratic principles, and stressed that his candidacy is the sole bulwark against attempts to recreate Mubarak's regime, through Shafiq's return.
"We are certain that the remnants of Mubarak's regime and his gang, and those that belong to it, and trying to bring back the former regime will fall flat and will land in the garbage bin of history," he said.
He added if he is elected president he will seek to form a broad-based coalition government. A leading Brotherhood member, Mohammed el-Beltagy, said the meeting Saturday discussed proposals to appoint Sabahi and Abolfotoh as vice-presidents.
Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak, spent much of his campaign for the first round criticizing the revolution that ousted his former boss. But on Saturday, he vowed there would be no "recreation of the old regime."
"I am fed up with being labeled 'old regime,'" Shafiq said at a news conference in his campaign headquarters in Cairo. "All Egyptians are part of the old regime."
A former air force commander and a personal friend of Mubarak's, Shafiq was booted out of office by a wave of street protests shortly after Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011.
The 15 months since Mubarak's ouster have seen a surge in crime, a faltering economy and seemingly endless street protests, work stoppages and sit-ins. The disorder has fed disenchantment with the revolutionary groups, and played to Shafiq's advantage as he portrayed himself as the candidate best placed to provide security.
But Shafiq is also associated with Egypt's military leadership, which has been accused of mismanaging the transitional period and failing to reform corrupt institutions or to provide stability. They also have been widely blamed for the deaths of more than 100 protesters, the torture of detainees and holding military tribunals for at least 12,000 civilians.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.