They vote tomorrow and Thursday for a leader to replace Hosni Mubarak, who was swept away 15 months ago by a popular revolt that ushered in a turbulent military-led transition and elections for a parliament now dominated by Islamists.
No real power has yet changed hands – an army council led by the man who served as Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years still holds the reins, promising to hand over by 1 July after a new president is elected, probably in a run-off vote in June.
Opinion polls are untested and previous post-Mubarak votes – the parliamentary poll won by the Muslim Brotherhood and an earlier referendum that overwhelmingly approved army-proposed interim constitutional changes – may be no guide this time.
Months of tussles and fluid alliances involving the army, Islamists, protesters and others have bewildered Egyptians and disillusioned some of those who helped topple Mubarak.
The overwhelming, urgent challenge for the new president will be to revive an economy battered by months of unrest and uncertainty, and to remedy the poverty, unemployment and collapsing public services that helped fuel last year’s revolt.
None of the 13 candidates is likely to top 50 per cent in the first vote, so a run-off is set for 16-17 June. A president is to be announced on 21 June, and the generals have promised to yield power by 1 July.
On the secular side, the front-runners are Amr Moussa, Mubarak’s foreign minister for ten years, and Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force commander and civil aviation minister, made prime minister by Mubarak during his last days in power.
On the Islamist side are Mohammed Morsi for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s strongest political movement, which was banned under Mubarak, and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who broke with the Brotherhood and has emerged as a crossover candidate. He has appeal both among liberals and the ultra-conservative Islamists known as Salafis.
The secular leaders of the revolution fear either Mr Moussa or Mr Shafiq would perpetuate elements of the old, corrupt police state they served. Some Islamists threaten a second uprising.
“Voting for these people means joining them in sin,” a Brotherhood cleric, Munir Gomaa, said in a religious edict. “It is not permitted by Islamic law … to bring back these faces the revolution sought to remove.”
The latest polls show Mr Moussa and Mr Shafiq in the lead, followed by Mr Abolfotoh and then Mr Morsi, with up to half the voters undecided. But polling, highly restricted under Mubarak, is new to Egypt and its reliability is unknown.
Many doubt Mr Morsi could be so far behind, given the Brotherhood’s proven electoral strength – in the post-Mubarak parliamentary election, the first in which the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to run openly, it captured nearly half the seats.
Any result brings its own tensions. A Morsi victory would mean the Brotherhood, holding the presidency and dominating Parliament, could set about Islamising Egypt’s government. But it might act with its customary pragmatism to avoid angering liberals and, more important, the military and security forces.