Cairo: Egyptians are being called to vote on Wednesday in the historic first presidential election since Hosni Mubarak was toppled by the Arab Spring uprising last year.
The landmark poll will define the path of the Arab world's most populous nation, currently split between Islamists who scored big in legislative elections and members of the former regime who vow a return to stability.
The election takes place in a climate of openness and democratic debate, in contrast to the predetermined results under longtime president Mubarak, but also amid insecurity and severe economic stagnation.
Inspired by an uprising in Tunisia, Egypt was the second country in the region to force its president from power by a popular uprising.
"This election is definitely the most important political event in Egypt since the revolution" of January 2011, said Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
Among the favourites are former Arab League head and ex-foreign minister Amr Mussa, Ahmed Shafiq, the last premier to serve under Mubarak, Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh an independent Islamist and the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Mursi.
Mussa and Shafiq have leaned heavily on their political experience in their campaigns, vowing a return to stability.
Despite being branded "felool," a pejorative term for members of the old regime, they have sought to distance themselves from their former boss Mubarak, who is on trial for involvement in the killings during the uprising and for corruption.
His verdict is expected on June 2.
Abul Fotouh promises a moderate Islamism, relying on a diverse coalition of support ranging from Salafist fundamentalists to young secular pro-democracy activists.
Mursi has the strong support network of the Muslim Brotherhood, but some worry that the Brotherhood, which already dominates parliament, is monopolising politics in post-revolt Egypt.
Other candidates have fewer chances of winning but still hope to make significant gains, including leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, moderate Islamist Selim al-Awwa, or young labour rights activist Khaled Ali.
The 12 candidates running do not include any member of the Coptic Christian community which makes up six to 10 percent of the population, or any woman.
The youth movements that spearheaded the revolution do not have a candidate of their own.
The first round will be followed by a run-off on June 16 and 17 if no candidate obtains an absolute majority.
The army, which ruled the country since Mubarak's fall has promised to cede power to civilian rule before the end of June, once the new president is elected.
Streets across the country have for weeks been covered with posters and banners for the election, while candidates' criss-cross the country tirelessly, from the fields of the Nile Delta to towns of Upper Egypt.
Egyptians followed the first ever televised debate between presidential candidates in history, between Amr Mussa and Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh.
"This is a totally new experience for us. Watching two personalities try to convince us to vote for them, nobody could have imagined this just two years ago," said Mohammed Saber, who watched the debate at a cafe in Cairo.
The run-up to the election was drama-filled with twists and turns along the way, some turning bloody and even deadly.
Weeks before the polls, 10 candidates were disqualified for various technical or legal reasons by the electoral commission, including former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the Brotherhood's first-choice candidate Khairat al-Shater, and Salafist politician Hazem Abu Ismail.
His elimination from the race sparked deadly clashes earlier in the month.
The end of the transition period, when the army hands power to civilian rule, will close a turbulent chapter under the leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
But the army's considerable economic and political weight, however, will mean it will likely have a continued role in the country's affairs.
In the absence of a constitution -- SCAF suspended the charter after Mubarak's ouster -- the exact powers of the next president who will rule Egypt for the next four years remain unclear.
Story first published:
May 19, 2012 10:01 IST