Egyptians have voted before, but never like this. Beginning today, Egyptians will be able to cast their votes for a handful of viable candidates. The outcome is unknown. If none of the 13 candidates garners more than 50 per cent of the vote (which seems probable), a run-off will take place in a month. By the time summer arrives, Egypt should have its first democratically elected president.
Take a step back to January of last year to see how extraordinary this experiment is. Then, Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt for 30 years and showed no signs of stepping down. There were no external threats to his rule and it was widely assumed that Mr Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to take over the presidency.
Now both languish in Egyptian jails. Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party has been disbanded. The generals still rule, but open elections have taken place for parliamentary seats, and the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood occupies a majority of them, along with Salafis.
Not everything has gone to plan. Street protests have shed far too much blood over the past 15 months. There is no constitution yet. Many Egyptians still mistrust, even fear, the Islamists. And the generals will certainly demand to maintain their vast economic privileges.
Yet the sight of two political candidates, the former foreign minister Amr Moussa and the former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, debating on live television was unprecedented in the Arab world and a sign of real change.
Egyptians have plenty of reasons to congratulate themselves. But whoever becomes president will not have long to bask in victory. The twin pillars of security and the economy need to be rebuilt swiftly. Egyptians don’t feel safe: crime has risen and there are fears of sectarian strife. Lax policing means that a once-stable social fabric is strained by fear.
The economy is also in dire straits. Tourism, one of the country’s biggest earners, has slumped by a third since the revolution. There have been fuel shortages. Youth unemployment hovers around 25 per cent and the new president may well need to go to the IMF for a loan. Egypt’s billions in foreign currency reserves could run out by the end of the year.
Whoever garners the most votes in this election will have a tough task ahead. For the new president, getting the top job may prove the easier part: getting Egypt to work will take a bit longer.