CAIRO — Egypt's presidential race is boiling down to a contest between Hosni Mubarak's former foreign minister and two Islamists with strong bases of support after the election commission on Thursday released the final list of 13 candidates.
None of the front-runners represents the largely liberal and secular youth who drove the uprising that toppled Mubarak's autocratic regime 14 months ago, dimming their hopes that the winner will bring dramatic democratic change in the country.
Instead, what has emerged as the key question in next month's vote to choose the first president after nearly 30 years of rule by Mubarak is whether the country of 85 million takes a turn toward religious rule or remains a mainly secular state.
Divisions among supporters of each camp have left the race highly unpredictable. Islamists showed their electoral power in parliamentary elections late last year in which the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the ultraconservative Salafi movement won around 70 percent of the legislature's seats. But in the presidential race, their backers are split between the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, and a more moderate Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.
Former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa has emerged as the strongest secular alternative. Moussa has distanced himself from the old regime and gained acceptance from some liberal and secular factions, but he remains mistrusted by some who see him as too close to his former boss, Mubarak. Abolfotoh, who broke from the Muslim Brotherhood last year, appeals not only to Islamists but also some liberals who find Moussa unpalatable.
Also hanging over the race is the military, which has ruled since Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11, 2011. It has promised to hand over power to the election's winner but many believe it is trying to carve out a permanent role for itself in politics.
The liberal youth groups credited with Mubarak's stunning ouster are divided and weakened, victimized by a systematic campaign to discredit them by the generals, the Islamists and a powerful state and private propaganda machine that has sided with the military against everyone else. The closest thing to their own candidate is Khaled Ali, a rights lawyer who is little known to the public and likely to end up among the ranks of the also-rans.
A potentially stormy campaign for the vote, scheduled for May 23-24, now officially begins after weeks of confusion and dramatic lurches in Egypt's politics.
The Brotherhood, which already holds nearly half the seats in parliament, reversed an earlier promise not to enter the race and fielded a candidate. Mubarak's former spy chief Omar Suleiman — seen by many as too tainted to even consider running — also threw his hat in the ring at the last minute. Then the military-appointed election commission dropped a bombshell earlier this month by disqualifying 10 would-be candidates, including three who were seen as the most powerful: the Brotherhood's deputy leader Khairat el-Shater, Suleiman, and a lawyer-turned-Islamic preacher, Hazem Abu Ismail, who was popular among Salafis. The disqualifications raised court cases and led to street protests.
The commission also disqualified Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, after parliament passed a law banning many former regime figures from running. Then within 24 hours, the panel reversed itself on Wednesday and allowed him to run after referring the law to the constitutional court. Shafiq, a longtime friend of Mubarak, is not viewed as among the front-runners.
The disqualifications had the heaviest impact on the Islamists.
Morsi was the Brotherhood's second choice, winning him the derogatory nickname of "the spare" among critics in the media. While he can count on support from the Brotherhood's core members and benefits from the group's well organized campaign machine, he is considered less charismatic than el-Shater.
Abu Ismail's exit from the race has left Salafis divided between Morsi and Abolfotoh — and some could even turn to non-Islamist candidates.
Efforts are on the unify the ranks. On Wednesday, Morsi won the endorsement of a powerful panel of mostly ultraconservative clerics. Another influential body of Salafi clerics is also pondering whether to throw its weight behind him. The second endorsement would be a powerful boost to Morsi, but it doesn't necessarily unify the vote for him.
"Nothing can be taken for granted," said Mohammed Habib, a reform-minded former senior member of the Brotherhood.
"There will be surprises and the direction of the Islamist vote cannot be guaranteed even if heavyweight and influential clerics back a certain candidate."
Many Salafis mistrust the Brotherhood, seeing it as too domineering. Some also worry that the Brotherhood could clash with the military.
"The Islamist vote is split and that, unfortunately, could benefit Amr Moussa," Kamal el-Helbawy, a one-time heavyweight Brotherhood leader, told Al-Jazeera television Thursday.
Moussa is also boosted by support from Egyptians who worry that the presidency would give too much power to Islamists who already have a grip on parliament. A Brotherhood president could feel empowered enough to introduce changes that overturn the remaining vestiges of secularism in a society that has steadily moved toward the religious right over the past 40 years.
Already, conservatives have seemed bolder. Parliament's education committee has voted to overturn a ban on female university students taking exams while wearing the niqab, a radical version of Islamic dress that covers the entire face and body except for a narrow slit of the eyes. The ban was designed as a precaution against possible fraud since the identity of the student could not be ascertained.
Some provincial universities have recently enforced a strict segregation of the sexes in classrooms and extracurricular activities like out-of-town trips. Pupils in some middle and high schools run by Islamists shout religious chants during the routine morning assembly. Threats by militants to disrupt pop concerts on some university campuses have led to their cancellation.
Moussa has also been in the public eye for more than two decades, first as Mubarak's foreign minister from 1991 to 2001, then as head of the Arab League until just after Mubarak's fall. He was popular as a foreign minister, and name recognition alone is a powerful tool in a country where illiteracy is high, said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert from the New York-based Century Foundation.
"The picture provided by the results of the parliamentary elections is incomplete and cannot be applied to the presidential election," Hanna said, referring to the Islamists' sweep in the voting late last year.
If none of the 13 candidates wins more than 50 per cent of initial the presidential election, a runoff will be held June 16-17 between the two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round. A winner will be declared on June 21.