The Muslim Brotherhood is claiming a lead in Egypt's historic presidential elections after polls closed on Thursday and vote counting began.

A Brotherhood spokesperson said exit polls conducted by the party's campaign workers all over Egypt suggested Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi is out front of the rest of the pack. The reliability of the party's exit polls could not be confirmed but several regional television stations were reporting a lead for Morsi, with Hamdeen Sabahi and Ahmed Shafiq battling it out for second place.

There are 13 candidates in the race — including liberals, Islamists and former regime figures — to elect a successor to Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian ruler who was ousted during the Arab Spring more than a year ago.

Shafiq and Amr Moussa are the two leading secular contenders and are both veterans of Mubarak's regime — Shafiq as prime minister and Moussa as foreign minister.

Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and minority Christians, is the other leading Islamist candidate along with the Brotherhood's Morsi.

Hamdeen Sabahi is a leftist candidate who has emerged in recent days as a dark horse. His popularity lies with Egyptians who want an alternative to an Islamist or a former Mubarak regime member.

Voter turnout slowed second day

CBC's Derek Stoffel visited four polling stations in the capital Cairo, but said most appeared deserted. The Associated Press said there were lineups in a few areas during the morning and the government had given people the day off work to encourage a good turnout.

Voting began on Wednesday and some people started lining up one hour before polls opened. Long lineups were reported, but the process appeared to have been going smoothly.

The two-day vote marked the end of decades of authoritarian rule, although concerns remained that the nation's military rulers who took over in February would try to retain influence. Egyptians were hopeful as they waited patiently for their chance to cast a ballot in the Arab world's first competitive presidential election.

"The revolution has won us the right to freely elect our president," said Doaa Nasr, referring to the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak's 29-year regime 15 months ago.

No candidate was expected to win more than 50 per cent of the vote, setting up a run-off between the two top finishers that is expected to be held June 16-17. A winner will be announced on June 21.

Power transfer expected by July 1

The generals who took over after Mubarak's ouster have promised to transfer power to a civilian government by July 1, ending a raucous transition period which saw a flareup of deadly street clashes, a faltering economy and a dramatic surge in crime.

Many are hoping the new president can help alleviate a number of problems facing Egyptians, including high unemployment and fuel shortages.

However, it's not entirely clear what powers Mubarak's successor will have as the country's constitution is being rewritten.

"At this point, it’s a bit of a work in progress and a bit of a leap of faith," CBC's Sasa Petricic reported from Cairo.

He said the mood in the country was upbeat as Egyptians cast their ballots in an election that has been called the freest and fairest in the country's history. Some at the polling stations broke out into spontaneous debate about the merits of particular candidates, Petricic reported.

The election comes less than two weeks before a judge is to hand down his decision following the lengthy trial of Mubarak, 84, on charges of complicity in the killing of some 900 protesters during the uprising.

He also faced corruption charges, along with his two sons, former heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa.

With files from The Associated Press