CAIRO (AP) — For the first time Egyptian voters had a choice of candidates for president yesterday in an election the United States hopes will be a key step toward democracy across the Middle East.

Angela Cesere
A government supporter bares a t-shirt with the face of President Hosni Mubarak. (AP PHOTO)

But the ballot was marred by charges of fraud and the near-certainty the vote would merely give longtime President Hosni Mubarak another six years of power.

Opposition party members, human rights monitors and citizens told The Associated Press that election workers at polling places in Luxor and other towns instructed voters to choose Mubarak. In Cairo and Alexandria, supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party promised food or money to poor people if they voted for Mubarak, voters said.

The leading opposition candidate, Ayman Nour, charged the elections “are not fair at all,” and vowed to reject rigged results.

However, a top official in another major opposition party, El-Sayed el-Badawy, said that while fraud and intimidation were apparent, “This is the first time for a president to reach out to the citizens and ask for their support. This is a positive thing.”

Osama Attawiya, spokesman for the country’s election commission, said the panel had received no major complaints or reports of problems.

Nine candidates ran against Mubarak this time, but only two were considered significant — Nour of the al-Ghad Party and Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd — and the president was expected to win handily. Final results were not due until Saturday.

El-Badawy and several independent monitoring groups said turnout was low, contrary to government predictions of high turnout. The number of voters might indicate whether recent calls for reform have shaken Egyptians out of an apathy generated by years of stagnation.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. government was following the election closely and called the vote “a beginning.”

“These elections really mark a historic departure for Egypt, in the fact that you have multicandidate presidential elections. I think it’s safe to say that Egyptians have not seen a presidential election like the one they have just seen in their lifetimes,” he told reporters.

In one clear sign of the changes sweeping Egypt, more than 3,000 people marched through downtown Cairo at mid-afternoon to protest against Mubarak — by far the largest crowd ever drawn by the group Kifaya, or “Enough” in Arabic.

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