CAIRO – Sixty years after their country came under military dictatorship, Egyptians are for the first time freely electing their president.
The voting that begins Wednesday is the greatest prize won by the multitudes who took to the streets to overthrow unpopular Hosni Mubarak in the string of people-power uprisings that upended the Middle East in last year's Arab Spring.
It is also a moment of truth for this most populous Arab republic, determining whether power stays in the hands of the secular elite tied to the old regime or makes a momentous shift to the long-suppressed Islamists, with all the implications that such a change may have for relations with the U.S. and the Middle East peace effort.
Then again, most of the 50 million eligible voters will probably be looking for more modest returns — chiefly some peace and quiet after more than a year of turmoil, bloody protests, a falling economy and rising crime.
Whoever wins, "I want him to see to the security and safety problem first," said Abdel-Rahman Shaker, a 55-year-old private security guard in Cairo. "If there is security, then we will have a better economy and production. I am looking out for my kids. I am working now, but we want a better life for our kids."
However, the new chapter to be opened by this election is likely to be just as tumultuous, facing contentious issues that no one has dealt with since Mubarak's fall: the economy, the role of Islam, the future of democracy, the relationship with the U.S., Egypt's longtime backer, and the fate of the historic 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt mirrors the chaotic trajectories that the Arab Spring revolts have taken after an initial burst of optimism that long repressed populations across the region could replace dictators with democracy.
The transition in Tunisia, the first nation to rise up in late 2010, has been the smoothest, with elections and a start to writing a new constitution. Post-Gadhafi Libya is torn among militias. Yemen's leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down earlier this year but remains a shadow power. Syria has turned into a bloodbath. Bahrain, a vital U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Navy in the region, still suffers spasms of sectarian violence.
In Egypt itself, the 15 months since Mubarak's ouster have been defined by deadly street clashes over demands by protesters whose demands range from minority Christian rights through the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to the departure from power of the generals who have run the country since Mubarak stepped down.
Well over 100 people have been killed in these clashes, including at least nine this month when protesters were attacked by armed men suspected to be supporters of the military.
At the same time, Egyptians are reveling in a new world of combative, televised politics, flesh-pressing politicians, presidential debates, rallies and hecklers.
"God and the people will guarantee that the next president will stay the course. If he does something wrong, we will kick him out," said Al-Sayed Hassan Eid, a 65-year-old worker at a Cairo orphanage. "People are now aware. Before we couldn't speak or open our mouth. There was state security who threatened to arrest us if we speak."
"The era of fear is now over," he said.
None of the 13 candidates is likely to top 50 percent in voting Wednesday and Thursday, so a runoff vote is set for June 16-17. A president will be announced June 21, and the generals promise to yield power by July 1.
On the secular side, front-runners are Amr Moussa, Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years, and Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force commander and civil aviation minister whom Mubarak made prime minister during his last days in power.
On the Islamist side are Mohammed Morsi for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the country's strongest political movement, which was banned under Mubarak, and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who broke with the Brotherhood and has emerged as a crossover candidate, with appeal among liberals and their polar opposites, the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis.
That lineup is already an explosive mix. The secular leaders of the revolution fear either Moussa or Shafiq would perpetuate elements of the old, corrupt police state they served. Some Islamists threaten a second uprising.
"Voting for these people means joining them in sin," a Brotherhood cleric, Munir Gomaa, said in a religious edict. "It is not permitted by Islamic law ... to bring back these faces that the revolution sought to remove."
The latest polls show Moussa and Shafiq in the lead, followed by Abolfotoh and then Morsi, with up to half the voters undecided. But polling, highly restricted under Mubarak, is new to Egypt and its reliability is unknown.
Many doubt Morsi could be lagging so far behind, given the Brotherhood's proven electoral strength; in the post-Mubarak parliamentary election, the first in which the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to run openly, it captured nearly half the seats.
Any result brings its own tensions. A Morsi victory would mean the Brotherhood, holding the presidency and dominating Parliament, could set about Islamizing Egypt's government. But it might act with its customary pragmatism to avoid angering liberals and, more important, the military and security forces.
A Shafiq or Moussa victory would likely spell confrontation between the president and the legislature. The Brotherhood insists that as the biggest faction, it gets to name a prime minister and form a government. But the interim constitution, unless it is rewritten, gives that right solidly to the president.
For most of his rule, Mubarak — like his predecessors — ran unopposed in yes-or-no referendums. Rampant fraud guaranteed ruling party victories in parliamentary elections. Even when, in 2005, Mubarak let challengers oppose him in elections, he ended up not only trouncing his liberal rival but jailing him.
Now he is 84, ailing and on trial on charges of complicity in the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 18-day uprising. But the downside of his departure is that Egyptian governance has been on hold for 15 months, with a series of military-appointed interim governments doing little to tackle the country's problems.
Burst sewers go unrepaired, and unenforced laws allow illegal building to gobble up precious farmland. Crime has spiraled because police forces have largely left the streets, bruised and resentful after being beaten by protesters during the anti-Mubarak uprising.
Writing a new constitution has not begun, and the panel due to draft it has not even been formed. The new system's shape has hardly been discussed — which powers will go to parliament, which to the president, how civil rights will be enshrined.
Almost nothing has been done on the major goal of the revolution: dismantling the Mubarak system that strangled political life. The security forces and domestic spy agencies that were the bedrock of the police state have not been reformed. Government ministries and agencies that for three decades operated largely through patronage and corruption remain unreformed. The military, through retired generals, pervades top state positions.
"These challenges will definitely not be resolved by the election or anytime soon thereafter," said Egypt expert Denis Sullivan of Northeastern University, Massachusetts. "The election is a crucial step through the fire of Egypt's ongoing, and still lengthy, transition toward a more participatory political system."
Associated Press correspondent Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects the state in the last paragraph to Massachusetts instead of Illinois. This item was sent previously as an advance and is now available for use.)