CAIRO // A run-off vote between two top presidential candidates was all but certain yesterday as Egyptians finished the second and final day of voting in what election monitors have called the first fair and free election for a new leader in the country's history.
Election rules call for a second round of voting if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes. Unofficial exit polls, including some from the campaigns themselves, suggested that no candidate had won more than 30 per cent.
That leaves the country waiting for an announcement about who will square off in run-off elections June 16 and 17.
It is widely expected that four men stand a chance of making it to the second round: Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the self-styled moderate Islamist; Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ahmed Shafiq, the former air force commander and prime minister for a month after the uprisings that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign.
The next phase of the contest will be a major test for which axis the election will hinge upon: the role of religion in the state, the election of a member of the old regime or a new face for Egypt.
In short, it will come down to "choosing the least bad candidate", said H A Hellyer, an analyst and a frequent contributor to The National.
"A lot of people are having to define where their red line is," he said. "Some people can't think of a Muslim Brotherhood president and will vote for whoever opposes the group. Other people can't vote for a member of the old regime."
It could even end up being a competition between a conservative Islamist and a liberal Islamist, or between two former members of Mubarak's cabinet.
If the two Islamists make it to the second round, the question is whether to vote for a more conservative candidate like Mr Morsi, whose political group already controls nearly half the seats in parliament, or a more progressive choice like Mr Aboul Fotouh, who was ousted from the Muslim Brotherhood last year for disobeying orders and has emerged as a possible bulwark against their dominance in the new government.
The race could also come down to two secularists who served in the old regime, pitting Mr Moussa, who has portrayed himself as an able manager and diplomat who was uninvolved in the political skulduggery of Mr Mubarak, against Mr Shafiq, who says he is the strong hand Egypt needs to bring stability and makes no excuses about his involvement in Mubarak's government.
For the candidates themselves, the election could prove to be a poisoned chalice because the country is facing daunting challenges.
The economy has suffered immensely over the last 16 months, with unemployment rising above 12 per cent and foreign currency reserves dwindling. One of Mr Mubarak's legacies is a government that has long sought to delay crucial reforms, such as reducing subsidies for energy and food. Rising petrol prices and electricity shortages are considered likely scenarios in the coming months.
Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, 88, an Egyptian writer and commentator on politics since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, told the state-run Al Ahram newspaper on Sunday that "that none of the presidential candidates has a vision or even a team of advisers and executives ready to manage the state as soon as he is elected president".
The president will also have to contend with a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al Nour Party, who together control more than 70 per cent of the seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament.
If Mr Morsi, the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, wins the presidential race, he might be able to use this to his advantage and pass legislation more smoothly. The other candidates, especially Mr Shafiq and Mr Moussa, could find initiatives blocked by a parliament that views them with suspicion.
And because the process of writing a new constitution has been delayed, the new president will come into office with powers that could be stripped away within months.