We have never been here before. This Egyptian presidential election, which begins on Wednesday, is unlike any political contest that has gone before. Never have we seen such a competitive contest in Egypt or, for that matter, in any Arab country. And never before have we had a presidential election where there was so little idea about who would win.
At this point, the polls are too close to call and no clear front-runner has emerged. Anyone could still emerge victorious.
This is the third major ballot in Egypt in the past year. The two earlier rounds of elections were notable for the surprises they brought. First, there was the referendum to ratify the constitutional changes put forward by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).
The once popular Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA, and the always popular Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, as well as the young leaders of the Tahrir Square uprising, all campaigned against that constitution.
Meanwhile, an alliance of Scaf and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to work in tandem in support of the document. Their combined organisational strength proved decisive and carried the day, and the amended constitution was passed by a sizeable margin.
In the parliamentary ballot, which was conducted over three rounds and concluded in January, the surprise was the consistent strength demonstrated by the Salafist movement. It had been expected that the Muslim Brotherhood would win handily - and they did. But what caught most observers off guard was the broad support given to Salafist candidates, resulting in Al Noor Party winning almost one quarter of the seats in the new parliament.
While one might assume that these contests would indicate the probable outcome of the presidential election, it appears that they might not provide a useful guide for two reasons: Egyptians appear to view the presidency differently than they do the legislature; and competition among the Islamist parties and a general concern about a Muslim Brotherhood overreach is producing an alliance of strange political bedfellows that may affect voter choices.
This has resulted in an alliance between Salafis and liberals supporting the candidacy of a moderate former Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh, who resigned from the organisation to contest this election. The Brotherhood's own candidate, Mohammed Morsi, has so far fared poorly in the polls. Even some members of his own party are concerned that their organisation could be seen as wanting too much power, too soon.
Secularists and liberals have at least three candidates in the running. Far and away the leader in this category appears to be Mr Moussa, but also scoring fairly well in various polls are the former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and Hamdeen Sabahi, the leader of the Kefaya protest movement.
The polling on the contest has been inconsistent and for good reason. Because there has never been a competitive presidential election in Egypt, we do not know how to predict turnout, voter sentiment for each party and candidate's organisational strengths. And so, regardless of what the polls may say, I would not count out the Brotherhood or Scaf playing a major role on election day.
As big as the question of who will win, is what the job of the presidency will be like in the immediate short term and in the long term after the new constitution is written. Some Egyptians may have high expectations of this election, assuming that major changes will occur if their candidate wins. Most likely, that will not be the case.
This is not a contest that will put in office a leader who will have the power of a Mubarak or a Sadat or a Nasser. Past presidents came out of the military and controlled the ruling party and parliament, as well as the security services and other institutions of the state. The current situation is less clear.
Scaf will remain a major force and appears unlikely to surrender complete control to a civilian authority, especially if it is one they do not trust. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement control significant blocs in parliament and corresponding influential segments of society. And then there are other organised forces that played a significant role in the revolt, and have demonstrated the capability to mobilise protests.
The new president's range of action will be constrained. Parliament will weigh in on the formation of the government, the military will push back to protect its prerogatives, and the "street" will react when it feels compelled to do so.
This new situation in Egypt is called "democracy" and it is an uncertain balancing act between competing forces. It is sometimes messy, and it will take time to work itself out.
It is important to remember, though, that while this drama is playing out, Egyptians are facing a major challenge that could upset an already precarious apple cart. And that is the state of the country's economy. It they are responsible, leaders across the spectrum will push aside differences born of self-interest and act quickly to consolidate the power of the new president and the effectiveness of the new government so that the economic crisis can be addressed as a national priority.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. After all, we've never been here before.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa