Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect preliminary results of Egypt's elections.
ISMAILIA, Egypt — With votes counted in 20 of Egypt's 27 provinces, the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate is in the lead with about 28 percent of the vote, and appears poised to enter a June 16-17 run-off, according to the Associated Press, citing Egyptian press reports. Final results are expected to be announced by the Presidential Elections Commission as soon as Sunday.
The Brotherhood's strong showing comes as a surprise. Secular-liberal Minister of Foreign Affairs Amr Moussa and independent Islamist, Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh, were billed as the leading candidates of the race, which took place on Wednesday and Thursday.
Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and leftist contender Hamdeen Sabahi, who had also drawn broad support during the campaign, are in a close race for second place. The results in Cairo have yet to be reported.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates parliament, is Egypt’s most organized political force, with a vast grassroots network.
Early signs had suggested the Brotherhood's efforts had fallen short. Even here in Ismalia, where the Brotherhood was born, support for its decidedly uncharismatic contender, Mohamed Morsi, appeared underwhelming. According to pre-election polls — notoriously unreliable in Egypt — he had no more than 10 percent of the vote.
But some experts cautioned that the Brotherhood should not be written off. “A lot of people are underestimating the support [there is] for Morsi,” said Shadi Hamid, an expert in Islamist political parties at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, a public policy organization.
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“But [the Brotherhood] makes up for a lot of ground on election days,” said Hamid, pointing to the Islamist movement’s strong showing in legislative elections earlier this year.
“They have this electoral machine,” he said. “They have more experience than any other party or candidate in getting out the vote.”
Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the first round of voting, the Muslim Brotherhood campaign was ever-present. And perhaps nowhere should the Islamists’ influence be more apparent than in the Suez Canal province of Ismailia.
It was here, amid the dusty, trash-lined streets and unpainted, red brick tenements, that in 1928 Hassan Al Banna gave birth to and nurtured the Muslim Brotherhood, his Islamic revivalist society that would operate both legally and illegally in Egypt for the next 83 years.
“Ismailia is where Hassan Al Banna started his organization. The people there, they have a history with the Brotherhood,” said Kamal Habib, a founding member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad who is now an Islamic scholar and political analyst. “It is very important to them.”
Morsi’s trademark red campaign poster was splashed across buildings and hung from lampposts — more so than any other candidate’s poster, it seemed — and residents spoke of massive rallies where Brotherhood loyalists from surrounding provinces traveled to marshal support.
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Mohamed Hesham Al Souli, a member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Ismailia, said they deployed one party representative to each of Ismailia’s 200 polling stations — a demonstration of their available manpower.
On the eve of the first day of voting, the local Freedom and Justice Party office sent a text message to local Ismailia numbers, quoting a passage from the Quran to encourage voters to go to the polls, voters said.
While the Muslim Brotherhood is considered moderate in comparison to Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist parties, Morsi has said if he reaches the presidency, he will impose Islamic law.
Both pro- and anti-Morsi voters said the Brotherhood — primarily a social services organization, but linked directly with the Freedom and Justice Party — was distributing parcels of flour, rice and sometimes meat in the days ahead of the election.
Hamid, who is a close observer of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, said that in a campaign period the Brotherhood often boosts its social service activities to build patronage and interdependency between the organization and the people.
Voters could not say if another candidate had visited Ismailia.
“I voted for the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections … and I will vote for Morsi in this election,” said 23-year-old accountant and resident of Ismailia, Safa Ezz El Deen. “Because they are a strong entity, a strong institution. The Brotherhood will move Egypt from nothing to becoming a first-world nation.”
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It seemed the army of Morsi volunteers left no neighborhood, at least in Ismailia city, the provincial capital, untouched.
“They have very good campaigning, very smart campaigning. It’s better than the other candidates, and it reaches many people,” said a monitor with The Egyptian Coalition for Electoral Observation in Ismailia, Said Al Gouda. “They know everybody here, this is their cradle — where they were born.”
Still, while the Brotherhood undoubtedly set its mammoth electoral efforts in motion in Ismailia, the results were ultimately fragmented.
According to official figures from the Ismailia governorate, Sabbahi won 20 percent of the vote, Moussa 19 percent, and Aboul Fotouh 17 percent.
Sabbahi, with a socialist style similar to the Egypt’s former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, appeals to many Suez-area voters because of Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, a popular anti-imperialist move, locals said. “Sabahi is popular here because of Nasser, and the Suez Canal,” said Al Gouda. “They are very revolutionary here – people don’t forget.”
Anecdotally, of the Ismailia voters interviewed by GlobalPost, more said they were voting for a candidate other than Morsi than those who said they supported the Brotherhood contender.
The sentiment may affect the results of a run-off between Morsi and another candidate here.
“[The Brotherhood] changes their dialogue from one neighborhood to another. From one month to another,” said said Saleh Ali Ahmed, a 39-year-old human resources manager at Coca Cola, adding that the inconsistency caused him to question their motives.
He said he supports leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.
Another voter, Sayed Bayoumi Mohamed, an Islamist with a long beard, said he was voting for the liberal Islamist Aboul Fotouh.
“It’s our right to choose freely,” he said. “Just because we are Muslims, does not mean we have to vote for Mohamed Morsi.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting from Ismailia, Egypt