CAIRO – The Muslim Brotherhood made an early show of confidence as vote counting began in Egypt’s landmark presidential election Thursday, saying its exit polls showed its candidate in the lead in the race to succeed ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

Exit polls by several Arab television stations also suggested the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was ahead of the pack of 13 candidates. The reliability of the various exit surveys was not known, and a few hours after the end of two days of votes, only a tiny percentage of the ballots had been counted.

But the swiftness of the Brotherhood’s claim showed its eagerness to plant its flag and establish in the public eye that Morsi had at least won entry into a second round vote. There are five prominent candidates, but none is expected to win outright in the first round. A run-off between the two leading contenders would be held June 16-17.

The first truly competitive presidential election in Egypt’s history turned into a heated battle between Islamist candidates and secular figures rooted in Mubarak’s old regime. The most polarizing figures in the race were Morsi and former air force commander and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, a veteran of Mubarak’s rule.

The Brotherhood is hoping for a presidential victory to seal its political domination of Egypt, which would be a dramatic turnaround from the decades it was repressed under Mubarak.

The group has promised a “renaissance” of Egypt, not only reforming Mubarak-era corruption and reviving decrepit infrasrtucture but also bringing a greater degree of rule by Islamic law. That prospect has alarmed more moderate Muslims, secular Egyptians and the Christian minority, who all fear restrictions on civil rights and worry that the Brotherhood shows similar domineering tendencies as Mubarak.

“I think we are on the verge of a new era. We trusted God, we trusted in the people, we trusted in our party,” prominent Brotherhood figure Essam el-Erian said a news conference at which the group claimed its lead.