CAIRO — Egypt has experienced many historic moments since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from the presidency 446 days ago, but Wednesday marks a true first the first presidential election in Egypts history where voters dont already know who the winner will be before they cast their ballots.
The air of uncertainty here is both unnerving and exhilarating, after three decades that saw Mubarak returned to office with nearly unanimous and rigged vote totals.
We are afraid of whats coming, said Ahmed Hussein, 26, as he stood outside the Church of the Virgin Mary in Cairos Imaba neighborhood. One year ago, bearded men charged through the sanctuary and set the church ablaze, and since then Egypts Coptic Christians have felt besieged.
Husseins friend, Rami Ahmed, 25, a taxi driver, said he felt just the opposite. We spent 30 years silenced and afraid to speak, he proclaimed. Why should we feel afraid now?
Voters will find 13 names on their ballots when they go to vote Wednesday and Thursday. But who will emerge as No. 1 and No. 2 and headed to a runoff in June is anybodys guess. So far, there have been four frontrunners since the election cycle began nearly two months ago, according to the various unscientific polls that have been published here. Their political platforms are wildly different, from Islamists promising shariah to unabashed proponents of the Mubarak order.
Its not just the election outcome thats unclear. So is whether the military council that rules the nation now will hand over power to a president. The presidents duties are also unclear since Egypt has yet to approve a new constitution. And there are few internal monitors to assess the validity of the polling, opening the door to charges of vote rigging.
Part of the uncertainty is that there are no proper polls conducted here. Various unscientific surveys conducted over the past month by groups like the government-owned Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and newspapers like the independent Al Masry al Youm have concluded that various candidates are in the lead. Each campaign also claims to have polls putting their nominee in the lead.
The latest al Ahram poll, released Sunday, put Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, in first place with 31.7 percent, an 8 percent drop from his standing a month ago.
Ahmed Shafik, Mubaraks prime minister, came in second place at 22.6 percent, up 2.6 percent from a week ago. Such a finish would put two candidates who once held posts in Mubaraks government in the runoff.
Another poll conducted by Al Masry al Youm during the same period put Shafik in the lead with 19.3 percent of the vote. And the Egyptian Cabinets Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), a government based organization, gave the lead to Shafik by 12 percent in a poll released May 15. But given that many believe that Shafik is a government-favored candidate, many Egyptians are dubious about its findings.
The al Ahram poll put Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in third place, moving up from fifth early in the campaign and gaining 5 percent in one week. That would still have him miss the runoff, but the backing of the Brotherhood, Egypts largest political organization, makes predicting the outcome impossible. The Brotherhood is thought able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of voters.
The one-time favorite, Islamist moderate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, was in fourth place, the continuation of a two-week polling drop.
Meanwhile, Hamdeen Sabbahi, a one-time unknown figure in the election who espouses the Arab nationalist philosophy of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, rose to 11.7 percent, the poll found, putting him in fifth.
Adding to the mix, the government has released returns from balloting by Egyptians living outside the country. In those early returns, Aboul Fotouh is in the lead, largely through Egyptians living in Western countries. But that may reflect as well the delayed response of Egyptians outside the country to whatever is driving voter opinion here. The al Ahram polls suggest that Aboul Fotouhs peak came in mid April, shortly after Omar Suleiman, the former head of intelligence, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat al Shater were disqualified, Suleiman for falling short of petition signatures to qualify and Shater because of a criminal conviction during the Mubarak years.
Voters wants, too, have evolved, contributing to the uncertainty. Where many said early on they wanted major change, some now say stability is their priority. And as others listened to various television interviews and the one presidential debate, they said they increasingly became disillusioned.
Hami Gaber, 40, who is in charge of security at the Virgin Mary Church and had stepped away for a bite to eat when the attack began a year ago, said he supports Shafik because he is the only candidate that can bring order to the country.
He knows the military. He has clean hands and there is no evidence he is corrupt, Gaber said.
At a womens clothing shop a few doors down, the employees there said they fear that a Shafik win will lead revolutionaries back into the streets, outraged that a former Mubarak cabinet minister was in charge of the country. Still, they said they planned to vote for him, saying the prospect of wide-scale violence is better than Islamists like the Brotherhood, who now control the parliament, controlling the presidency as well.
If Ahmed Shafik wins, there will be a revolution, said Fadi al Emad, 24. But he is the best choice because he isnt a civilian controlled by a party. We need a military man.
Mohammed Hassam, 61, a clothing merchant who sat a nearby coffee shop said he was voting for Moussa because he was the least bad option at a time when the nation needs an experienced leader.
He is the only one who will know how to manage the country, Hassam said. We cant afford to have someone who needs to learn on the job.
For parliamentary elections last year, which the Brotherhood dominated, there were 128 local and international groups who monitored what took place at the polls; only 49 local groups and three international ones registered to monitor the presidential balloting, according to Supreme Presidential Election commission. Some monitoring groups have complained that they will only have 30 minutes in each polling station.
Journalists, too, face new restrictions. Last fall, reporters could interview any of the election workers; this time they can only speak to the judge in charge of each poll station.
Perhaps most unsettling for Egyptians is that whatever the outcome, the election does not assure them of any immediate stability.
What happened here was we destroyed a system that stood for years, explains Menal Kamal, an 18-year-old law school student at the clothing shop. It will take years to get security back.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.