BY HAMZA HENDAWI AND MAGGIE MICHAEL

The Associated Press

CAIRO -- The Muslim Brotherhood said yesterday that its candidate was leading in exit polls from Egypt's landmark presidential election, as official counting began after two days of voting to choose a successor to ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

In stations around the country, workers cracked open ballot boxes and started the count after polls closed last night, in Egypt's first truly competitive presidential election.

There are five prominent candidates in a field of 13, but none is expected to win outright in the first round. A runoff between the two leading contenders would be held June 16-17.

A Brotherhood spokesman said its 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," said Ali. "This is above our expectations."

The reliability of the Brotherhood's polls could not be confirmed, but 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 Mubarak's last prime minister and was himself forced from his post by protests soon after his former boss. Opponents brand him as a "feloul" or "remnant" of the old, autocratic regime, but he has drawn support from Egyptians who crave stability or fear Islamists.

Sabahi is a leftist who had been a dark horse but gained steadily in opinion polls over the past week, attracting Egyptians who want neither an Islamist or a former regime figure.

The Brotherhood is hoping that a victory in the presidential race will seal its political rise since its longtime opponent Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11, 2011, in a wave of protests. The group won just under half the seats in parliamentary elections late last year, establishing it as the biggest political bloc.

In the presidential campaign, the Brotherhood's first choice, deputy leader Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified because of a Mubarak-era conviction. Morsi, the second choice, was seen as less charismatic.

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