CAIRO: A lineup of Islamists, retired generals, old regime figures and political newcomers are campaigning to become Egypt's first president since Hosni Mubarak's fall, but none of them may have the stature to tackle this nation's enormous problems or stand up to the powerful military.
The May 23-24 elections are supposed to mark the final stage of the post-uprising transition to civilian rule and in the end, the Islamists will probably have the last word. They dominated parliamentary elections a few months ago and their newfound political power makes them the country's kingmakers.
"The Islamists boast the nation's best capabilities to mobilize the masses, but that has been somewhat weakened," said prominent analyst Ammar Ali Hassan. "There is potential for a wide open race, but only if everyone plays by the rules."
Whoever is chosen and the extent of transparency in the election will determine whether this country, where power has long been concentrated in the hands of the executive, can discard a legacy of authoritarian rule and become truly democratic or will continue to have a facade of democracy that thinly conceals an autocratic regime.
There is also a hope, especially among the liberal and secular youth who spearheaded last year's democracy uprising, that the right candidate for the nation's highest office could temper the two biggest centers of power in Egypt today - the military and the Islamists.
But those in the running so far have come under criticism for a lack of charisma, lack of a clear vision for the future of Egypt, being too beholden to the military or too closely associated with the old Mubarak regime.
The field was significantly depleted when Nobel Peace Laureate and pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei quit the race in January. He said at the time a fair election would be impossible under the rule of the military, which took power after Mubarak fell in February of last year.
Amr Moussa, who served Mubarak as foreign minister for 10 years before becoming the Arab League chief, is in his late 70s and does not appear to be in synch with the revolutionary mood gripping the nation over the past year. But he is popular among middle-class Egyptians. Moussa is a secular-minded seasoned diplomat who is well known internationally - hardly the pedigree that the Islamist parties are looking for in a president.
Also at the forefront of the hopefuls is Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, a moderate Islamist who defied the nation's largest political group - the Muslim Brotherhood - by quitting to run for president as an independent.
He is a doctor by profession and his chances depend on whether he can muster support that transcends political and ideological boundaries because he cannot rely on the Brotherhood for votes.
The list of real contenders also includes ultraconservative cleric Hazem Abu Ismail; Mubarak's last prime minister and former air force general Ahmed Shafiq; leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahy; Islamic scholar Mohammed Salim El Awa and a youthful rights lawyer and newcomer Khaled Ali. The list of likely also-rans includes lawmakers, judges, journalists and senior army officers.
"We don't know what to do. We either have candidates from the old regime or we have people who don't share our principles," said Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, co-founder of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party. "I don't think the public mood is entirely Islamic. People want to have a respectable personality, trustworthy and pious, but not necessarily an Islamist."
After decades of authoritarian rule, the office of the president has acquired almost absolute powers, eclipsing those of the prime minister, the legislature and judiciary combined.
Such extensive powers have given past presidents, such as Mubarak, license to impose their own personal will and convictions on the nation's political and economic policies.
But Islamists are determined to curtail the president's powers in the next constitution, giving more say in the running of the country to the legislature they now dominate. The parliament is supposed to choose an assembly to draft the new charter.
Another problem is the new constitution is not likely to be drafted before the presidential elections, something that deterred at least one candidate, Elbaradei, from running. He was troubled by the idea of running for an office without knowing what the powers of that office will be.
Egypt has been ruled by presidents with a military background since a 1952 coup by army officers seized power, toppling the monarchy and ending a liberal political experiment that endured for 30 years under British occupation. Mubarak, 83 and now on trial, ruled Egypt for 29 years during which he won five terms in heavily fraudulent votes.
Though his ouster raised high hopes that Egypt could finally be democratically ruled, the policies adopted by the ruling generals over the past year have cast heavy doubts.
The military's reputation has been tarnished by charges that they bungled the transition to democracy, killed protesters, tortured detainees and operated in secrecy. Most recently, their standing was dented by their handling of a case that accused Americans and others working for nonprofit, pro-democracy groups of fomenting unrest.
Late last year, Egypt held what was hailed then as the nation's freest election in living memory. There were few signs of the ballot-stuffing and vote-rigging rampant during the Mubarak years. But there were nationwide and consistent violations that gave rise to credible claims of unfairness in the parliamentary vote.
The violations have mostly been blamed on the Islamists, who went on to dominate both houses of parliament. There is only a handful of women and a tiny number of minority Christians, who account for 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, who sit in parliament's two chambers, a fact that is used to back up claims that the elections were skewed.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest political group, captured just under half of all seats in the lower house and more than a third of in the upper house. The Brotherhood, which spent most of the 84 years since its inception as an illegal group, has said it would not field its own candidate for president and that it did not plan to support an Islamist president either. But it now insists that the president must have an "Islamic background."
The fundamentalist group, however, has yet to say which one on the steadily growing list of presidential hopefuls it will throw its considerable weight behind.
The ultraconservative Salafis of the Islamist al-Nour party, who won 25 percent of the seats in the lower house, are coordinating with the Muslim Brotherhood over the presidential election.
They too said they are waiting to see which candidate they will tell their supporters to vote for. But they already know the qualities they are looking for: The Salafis want to see Islamic law strictly imposed in Egypt.
"He must be a believer in Islamic laws, but he doesn't have to be an Islamist," said Al-Nour party spokesman Yousseri Hamad.