CAIRO – Egyptians vote Monday and Tuesday in elections to choose a new president after the military's ouster last summer of the country's first democratically elected leader, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
Considered all but certain to win is the man who removed Morsi — retired military chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who for the past 10 months has been the most powerful figure in Egypt. The only other candidate in the race is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the 2012 presidential election.
The vote brings a new phase in Egypt's upheaval since the 2011 toppling of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising.
Since Morsi's ouster, his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have held protests against what they call a coup against democracy. They have been met by a ferocious police crackdown that has killed hundreds and imprisoned thousands. In retaliation, Islamic militants have waged a campaign of suicide attacks, bombings and shootings against police and the military.
At the same time, an economy crippled since 2011 has worsened. Tourism has withered. Poverty has grown. Government debt has mounted. Cities face daily blackouts as the state struggles to buy fuel for power stations.
Here are a few questions and answers about the election.
Q: Why is el-Sissi so favored to win?
A: The 59-year-old el-Sissi has been the object of adulation since ousting Morsi on July 3 following massive protests by millions against the Islamist president. A significant sector of Egyptians is eager for stability and embittered at the Islamists.
Also, the public has been awash for months in el-Sissi-mania fueled by the media. TV stations and newspapers herald him as the nation's savior and the only man capable of solving its problems. They have also fanned pro-military and pro-police jingoism, intimidating critics.
In contrast, Sabahi has received little media attention.
Q: So the election is a foregone conclusion?
A: By percentage of votes, it could be a landslide.
Attention will be on turnout. If it's high, el-Sissi can claim the nation is behind him and tell the world that his ouster of Morsi reflected the will of Egyptians.
Low turnout would show the narrowness of his support in a country that has risen up against two presidents since 2011.
If Sabahi manages to thwart a landslide with a respectable showing, it would be a further blow, showing active opposition to el-Sissi despite the media hype.
One benchmark: Turnout in the 2012 election that Morsi won was just under 52 percent. Morsi garnered 13.2 million votes, just under 52 percent of the total.
Q: Will the vote be rigged?
A: Mubarak-style outright rigging is nearly impossible now. But irregularities can be expected, like campaigning outside polling centers or intimidation of Sabahi supporters.
Q: What is at stake?
A: Egyptians are desperately looking to restore security and revive the economy. Failure to show tangible results could trigger a new wave of unrest that some fear could be even more violent.
Also, an el-Sissi presidency faces the question of whether Egypt can achieve the democracy sought by the 2011 "revolution." Morsi's backers says the ouster of an elected president crushed those hopes. El-Sissi's supporters say he saved democracy from Islamists. His secular critics fear he will enshrine autocracy once more.
Q: What about the Muslim Brotherhood?
A: Its organization has been smashed, banned and declared a terror group. Its leaders, including Morsi, face multiple trials on charges that could bring their execution. Many Egyptians have turned against it, convinced it tried to use religion and elections to monopolize power. The group has called on its supporters to boycott the election.
But the Brotherhood's electoral constituency has not vanished. So Egypt returns to a question it faced for decades: How to have democracy unless Islamists can participate?
Both el-Sissi and Sabahi vow never to let the Brotherhood back into politics — so Egypt is likely to stay on a course of confrontation.
Islamists say they will continue as a street opposition, betting el-Sissi's popularity will collapse and more Egyptians will join protests. Some may turn to violent Islamic militancy.
Q: What's el-Sissi's platform?
A: Stability, stability, stability. El-Sissi says all turmoil must stop so the country can tackle Egypt's massive problems.
He promises his military-bred efficiency can bring "great leaps" in the economy. Everyone must buckle down — even businessmen should forgo some profit for the good of the nation, he counsels.
But he's given few specifics. A few ideas he's offered: Handing out reclaimed desert land to farmers and distributing high-efficiency light bulbs to resolve the energy crunch. He has not said how he would reform subsidies that eat up giant chunks of the state budget or create jobs for hundreds of thousands entering a tight job market every year.
Q: Is el-Sissi another Mubarak as detractors claim?
A: El-Sissi says there's no going back to the Mubarak era. But he also says real democracy is not possible for years.
His critics worry all the old elements are falling back into place. The police — widely hated under Mubarak — is again a powerful force, and rights groups report a new rise in abuse and torture.
A new anti-protest law bans political gatherings without police permit. Some of the best known secular activists from the anti-Mubarak uprising have been jailed under the law.
El-Sissi says the law is necessary and has made clear he won't tolerate protests or strikes. He lectured newspaper chiefs not to harshly criticize the government or press free speech rights.
The new constitution, at least on paper, guarantees political rights more strongly than under Mubarak. But already some of those have been undermined in the name of security.
El-Sissi says he wants Egyptians to form political parties for elections later this year for a new parliament. There's been no parliament at all for 10 months, and no legislating lower house for two years. Again in theory, that could eventually open the door for a more vibrant political life.
Finally, unlike during most of Mubarak's rule, the constitution sets term limits on the president: two, four-year terms.