CAIRO // Egypt has always been a place that loved a good conspiracy theory. Throughout the Hosni Mubarak era, the shisha-house chatter often revolved around external -usually Zionist - plots to destabilise Egypt and internal regime schemes to elevate Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal and turn the country back into a virtual monarchy.
In the postrevolutionary era, a new guessing game has emerged. With a historic presidential vote looming next week, the speculation has centred on who will be the "military candidate" — the favoured choice of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).
This collection of generals has held executive power in Egypt for the past 15 months, since it helped force Mr Mubarak out of office. Now presidential elections are scheduled for Wednesday and next Thursday with runoffs extending into mid-June if necessary. The generals have publicly pledged to return to their barracks and hand over power by July 1 once a new president is in place.
But few in Egypt believe the military will be a purely neutral observer to the proceedings.
Objectively, Scaf has plenty riding on the outcome of the elections, as it seeks to ensure its place in post-Mubarak Egypt. The military has extensive economic interests — it is one of Egypt's largest landowners and controls a string of businesses including a popular bottled water company. It also receives US$1.3 billion (Dh4.7bn) annually in direct US military assistance.
It will want to protect that economic empire and ensure that it remains independent from civilian authority and budgetary oversight.
The opaqueness of Scaf's inner workings has only fuelled the speculation, creating an Egyptian form of Kremlinology as Scaf-watchers attempt to decipher the council's internal hierarchy and intentions. Scaf has tended to communicate via announced decree or stage-managed press conference, which only adds to the guessing game.
The speculation over which candidate might receive the military's quiet blessing is far more than just fodder for coffee-house chatter. The underlying implication, and widespread societal assumption, is that the military would use its influence over the state media and institutions such as the judiciary to actively tip the contest towards their man.
Also, despite people's general antipathy for Mr Mubarak, there does remain a constituency for those who think the country needs a strong authoritarian hand as a bulwark against an Islamist takeover. Fearful secularists, Christians and others could end up rallying around a candidate perceived as having the military's backing as a sort of "stability/anti-Islamist" option.
For a brief window last month, it seemed as if the military and security establishment had found its man. After months of promising he would not run, Mr Mubarak's long-time intelligence chief and close adviser, Omar Suleiman, abruptly reversed course and submitted his candidacy papers just before the deadline.
Mr Suleiman, who was appointed as Mr Mubarak's first vice president in the earliest days of the revolution, would have been a logical choice for being Scaf's favoured candidate. After all, if Mubarak had not abruptly promoted him, Mr Suleiman would have been actively serving on Scaf and the military council is stocked with his contemporaries and proteges.
But the Suleiman-candidacy was short-lived. Within a week, he was disqualified by the Presidential Election Commission over irregularities in the signatures gathered to qualify as a candidate. In Mr Suleiman's absence, the former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq has emerged as the most likely candidate for military backing. Mr Shafiq, who like Mr Mubarak is a former head of the air force, has the military pedigree and a reasonably competent track record as a former minister of civil aviation.
However Mr Shafiq's brief run as Mr Mubarak's final prime minister was regarded as a disaster and he was hounded from office shortly after the revolution. He is also handicapped by a reputation as a terrible public speaker who tends to lose his temper, and he can come off as arrogant and imperious during interviews and debates.
Nevertheless, his very presence in the race has served as a lightning rod for speculation.
Those questions only grew louder when it was revealed that Mr Shafiq was the candidate behind a very prominent buzz marketing campaign. Several months ago, billboards appeared in key areas, including over Tahrir Square. They were emblazoned with two words: The President.
On May 1, the first official day that campaigns could begin, the billboards were changed to reveal Shafiq campaign posters proclaiming his "Actions, not words" slogan in the same colour and style.
It was a bold and expensive venture — one that prompted immediate questions about the depths of Mr Shafiq's financial backing. He currently trails a distant third or fourth in most polls, behind the former foreign minister Amr Moussa, the dissident former Muslim Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and the formal Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi.
"Shafiq is definitely the military candidate, and if he is elected it will put everything into question," said Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political science professor.
If Mr Shafiq falters, the military's focus could shift to Mr Moussa. The former Arab League chief is a lifelong civilian, but he is regarded as a pragmatist who has no desire to force the military into an uncomfortable position.
There remain other potential fringe candidates connected to the military establishment such as the former senior intelligence officer Hossam Khairallah and the former police officer Mahmoud Hossam. But they are regarded as such marginal names that a strong showing by either would immediately prompt a backlash.