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.
The Associated Press reported that workers cracked open ballot boxes and started the count in stations around the country, after polls closed Thursday night.
There are five prominent candidates in a field of 13, but no one 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,” Ali told AP. “This is above our expectations.”
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 former President Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister and was himself forced from his post by protests soon after his former boss. Opponents have branded him as a remnant of the old, autocratic regime, but he has drawn support from Egyptians who crave stability or fear Islamists.
Sabahi is a leftist who gained steadily in opinion polls over the past week, attracting Egyptians who want neither an Islamist nor a former regime figure.
A Brotherhood victory in the presidential race will seal its political rise, after it won just under half the seats in parliament in elections held late last year.
The Brotherhood’s 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.
Another prominent secular candidate is former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. AP reported that 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.
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.