CAIRO — When Egyptians go to the polls Wednesday and Thursday, they will be choosing not only Egypt's first democratically elected president, but also the future identity and political direction of their country.
In selecting among the 13 candidates, Egyptians will be deciding whether they want their ancient nation to be secular or Islamic, but also whether it will be governed by "revolutionary" or "feloul" policies and values.
"Feloul," one of those memorable Egyptian-Arabic words, translates as "remnants" — like the scraps left on your dinner plate — or what Egyptians now call those connected with the despised Hosni Mubarak regime. Despite their insistence on labeling the political uprisings of January 2011 that ousted Mubarak's regime in just 18 days a "revolution," many Egyptians doubt that the election will shift all political power from military to civilian rule.
Fifteen months after Egyptians toppled Mubarak's 30-year rule, the euphoria surrounding the dramatic uprisings in Tahrir Square has largely evaporated. Tourism, along with foreign exchange reserves and other crucial economic indices, has plunged. While many Egyptians have relished political debate that was unimaginable in Mubarak's day, others told me they would not bother to vote because the military-led transitional government and Islamist-dominate parliament had failed to improve their lives or Egypt's prospects.
Disruptions from street protests and strikes have become routine. Street crime, still low by western standards, is rising. The political winds in the most populous, strategically vital of Arab nations are shifting daily, even hourly.
While there are few scientifically based polls, most analysts predict that the race will come down to a choice between Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, 60, the Islamist who broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood and has struggled to portray himself as a "moderate" alternative; non-Islamist candidate Ahmed Shafiq, an ex-Air Force chief who revived Egypt Air and was Mubarak's last lackluster prime minister; or Amr Moussa, 75, a former Arab League president and foreign minister under Mubarak who is perceived by Egyptians as embracing more "secular" values.
But experts may be underestimating the mobilization capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose delivery of vital goods and services to Egypt's poor has given the 84-year-old organization discipline and staying power. Though the Brotherhood's nominee, Mohammad Morsi, is a fall-back candidate devoid of charisma, he should not be written off.
In interviews last week, candidates and party leaders seemed to find vagueness a virtue. Few of them had concrete, realistic proposals for addressing Egypt's staggering debt or reviving its moribund economy.
Several vowed to solve Egypt's projected $11 billion budget gap in the next 18 months by "ending corruption" and seizing assets of wealthy investors who allegedly benefited from proximity to Mubarak and his sons.
Khairat al-Shater, an imposing self-made businessman who is the Brotherhood's de facto leader and might well have been elected president had Egypt's judiciary not barred him from running, acknowledged that Egypt faces economic crisis. But he said Egypt's woes could be resolved by "exporting workers" to other Arab states, "enhancing the private sector," "strengthening tourism services and marketing" and transforming Egypt from an "exporter of raw materials to processed goods."
The country's innumerable political parties make predicting the outcome of the first round of voting perilous. A second round will ensue in June if, as anticipated, none of the 13 contenders receives a majority of the popular vote.
But even some liberal secularists told me they were supporting Fatouh, the independent Islamist, because he had championed the revolution and favored "revolutionary" policies to advance "social justice" — that is, an even greater role for the top-heavy Egyptian state in creating and distributing wealth.
Conversely, some Islamists who embrace favor stability have crossed religious-political lines to support ex-minister Moussa, whom critics deride as "feloul." To their supporters, however, "feloul" candidates like Moussa and the military's current favorite, Shafiq, represent stability — a return to law-and-order predictability.
"But their 'good ol' days' are not the economic reformist 1990s when Egypt liberalized political life, privatized the economy and loosened trade restrictions," warned Amr Bargisi, the head of an Egyptian group that promotes civil society. "Many in this crowd favor a return to the 1980s, when Egypt's jails were full and the economy was a largely state-run preserve."
Many Egyptians warned me that Fatouh, the alternative Islamist, was no moderate. Though he split from the Brotherhood when it initially refused to field a candidate for president and claims to represent a more enlightened Islam, he has been endorsed by some of the ultra-conservative "Salafists" who won a shocking 27% of the parliament's seats last year.
While Fatouh has espoused many liberal positions — he says, for instance, that a Christian can be president — his ultimate goal remains the peaceful transformation of Egypt into an Islamic state.
One of Egypt's few unifying memes, meanwhile, is opposition to Israel. Last year, even some liberal, secular parties sent supporters to surround the Pyramids to protect them from an ostensible Zionist "plot" to levitate and destroy the ancient tombs through incantation. But no leading candidate favors abandoning Egypt's peace treaty obligations.
What makes the presidential contest semi-surreal is its lack of definition. Egypt has not re-written its constitution or decided whether the new leader will head a presidential or parliamentary system. Nor has the interim government defined the chief executive's powers.
For months, the military-dominated executive has warred with the Islamist, Brotherhood-led parliament, often producing stalemate. Some of its actions have compounded Egypt's woes. Despite a soaring budget deficit, it increased wages for government employees and expanded its inefficient, 6-million strong public sector by close to a million people. A witch hunt against economic reformers and private investors — accused in mock military trials of being part of Mubarak's "corrupt" coterie — has depressed foreign investment, down from $13 billion in 2008 to $200 million in late 2011.
Some doubt that the military will let the Islamists take total power. Behind closed doors, the military has been demanding a continued say in key national security decisions, immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes committed during Mubarak's rule and the protection of its considerable economic stake — estimates range from 15% to 40% of the GDP. Almost all political parties seem ready to meet those terms, analysts say, even the Brotherhood.
Al-Shater claims to have rejected a deal. So has Fatouh. But Shater predicted that the military would do whatever it could to prevent the Brotherhood from gaining power. "They will cancel the elections if they think that Morsi will win," he told me.
That is unlikely. But much depends on whether Egypt's politically disengaged masses — the so-called "revolution of the couch"— plus those dependent on tourism, families of the army and security services, Christians and others who crave a return to stability — turn out to vote. A low-turnout almost guarantees a Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist victory.
"For 80 years we've been here, supporting the poor with free schools, food and low-cost hospitals," Shater says. "Their trust is only logical."