NBC's Richard Engel talks about the importance of Egypt's first Democratic presidential elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Updated at 11:15 a.m. ET: A dying man came "for my children," a college student said he finally felt "like a citizen of this country," and an undecided voter was just happy to take part in "a historic" moment.
Egyptians turned out in droves Wednesday to take part in the country's first-ever democratic election of its leader.
Fifteen months after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprising, BBC News reported lines began growing at many polling stations shortly after they opened at 8 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET).
"It's a very big day. This is a real great moment for the Egyptians to change,” a woman waiting to vote in Cairo told the BBC. Another in the line was asked how long she’d been waiting to vote; she laughed and said, "30 years."
Yasmina Muslemany / NBC News
Law student Shaimaa Magdy (left), said she was voting for leftist Hamdeen Sabahy because "I want someone new, with new ideas, I want him to care about the youth, to care about the economy and the poor." Iman Moustafa backed the same candidate saying he was "honest in his words and actions; he was jailed a lot and he worked a lot against injustice."
President Jimmy Carter is in the country as part of an international delegation monitoring the election, the UPI news service reported.
"Egyptians cheer "Jimmy Carter! Jimmy Carter! Welcome to #Egypt!" When former President comes out of polling station," BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet said in a tweet.
A police officer in Cairo said voters had been asking him all morning "Who do you like?" But he said "I tell them, 'You must decide,'" the BBC reported on Twitter.
Medhat Ibrahim lined up to vote in a poor district south of Cairo despite having cancer.
"I can die in a matter of months, so I came for my children, so they can live," he tearfully told The Associated Press.
Mubarak ruled Egypt for some 30 years – earning the nickname “Pharoah” – and elections during that time were thinly attended and any result was a foregone conclusion.
The election will determine who will take over from generals who have overseen a transition marred by violence, protests and political deadlock. They were due to formally hand over power by July 1.
Yasmina Muslemany / NBC News
Accountant Hossam Mohamed Diab (left) said he was voting for Islamist candidate Mohamed Mursi, saying he was "well educated" and has "a lot of life experience" "Hopefully he can build consensus between the people's assembly and the ruling authorities," Diab said. Khaled Ahmed backed leftist Hamdeen Sabahy, saying "he's one of us, he's one of us who was in the square [Tahrir Square during anti-Mubarak protests]."
The BBC reported that a police sergeant died after being shot during clashes between rival supporters in Rawdh al-Faraj Tuesday evening and said in a tweet that 10 people had been injured in election-related incidents, citing the ambulance authority.
Some voters held out hope the change to a democracy would bring profound change.
"We want to live better, like human beings," Ibrahim, a 58-year-old government employee, told the AP.
“Our vote will make Egypt's voice in the Arab world ring loud and clear," Saad Abed Raboh, a civil servant in his mid-50s voting in Alexandria, told Reuters. "For 30 years Egypt's vote was muted, but now it will be heard because Egyptians will choose their president."
And Ahmed Ali, a student of pharmaceutical studies in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, told Reuters that “the experience [of voting] is quite new and makes me feel like a citizen of this country."
But others simply came along to take part in a momentous occasion.
"I will vote today, no matter what, it is a historic thing to do, although I don't really know who I will vote for," Mahmoud Morsy, 23, told Reuters. He then said he would probably pick the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Mursi.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters
Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa (second right) waits in line before casting his vote at a polling station in Cairo Wednesday.
The wide-open election pits Islamists against men who served under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.
Voters were blitzed by three weeks of official campaigning, which ended on Sunday, and Egypt held its first U.S.-style televised presidential debate. Newspapers carried interviews and campaign ads. Banners and posters festoon the streets.
Although official campaigning was over, candidates made a final push to get out the vote. Half a dozen minibuses plastered with "Yes to Amr Moussa" – the former Arab League chief bidding for office – offered free rides to polling stations.
None of the 12 candidates is expected to get more than half the votes and win outright in the first round on Wednesday and Thursday, and a run-off between the top two is likely in June.
Whoever wins faces a huge task to deliver changes that Egyptians expect to relieve a grim economic outlook. The military that was a pillar of Mubarak's rule is likely to remain a powerful political force for years.
The army, whose senior ranks control extensive commercial interests, insists it does not want to hang onto power.
"With these elections, we will have completed the last step in the transitional period," General Mohamed el-Assar told a news conference on the eve of voting.
The West, long wary of Islamists, and Israel, worried about its 33-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, are watching to see if proponents of political Islam add to their gains after sweeping most seats in a parliamentary vote that ended in January.
Many Gulf states are concerned about who will lead the regional heavyweight after their long-time ally Mubarak was ousted. Their conservative monarchies have so far emerged from a wave of Arab uprisings relatively unscathed.
The Brotherhood's Mursi, trying to allay such worries, pledged in a final rally on Sunday that "we will not export our revolution to anyone.”
Mursi was pitched into the race at the last minute after the Brotherhood's first-choice candidate was ruled out. He may lack charisma, but he can rely on the Brotherhood's vote machine.
Among the voters Wednesday, Mahmoud Ahmed told NBC News that he backed Mursi "because his project is Islamic." "I hope that someone comes and governs us with the book of God. We won't find justice except in the book," Ahmed said.
Mursi's rivals include Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an Islamist who has drawn support ranging from liberals to hardline Salafi Muslims; Moussa, who was foreign minister before moving to the Arab League and has strong name recognition; and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, who like his former boss, once commanded the air force.
Nabeya Ahmed told NBC News he backed Moussa. "They say he's good and he knows politics well," Ahmed said.
A late surge helped Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose "Free Officers" overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and set up the system that has put military men in the presidency for the past 60 years.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- 'Nearly empty': A rare glimpse inside Syria rebel stronghold
- Terror suspect's eye color? UK's flying cameras know
- Analysis: How Egypt's election can transform the Middle East
- Portraits of a queen: When the monarch becomes the subject
- Tokyo Sky Tree takes root as world's second-tallest structure
- Robotic 'fish' takes to seas to catch pollution sooner
Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world