The frenzied campaigning for Egypt's first presidential election since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 formally ended on Monday but that has hardly dampened the high-octane excitement that has gripped the nation across class, gender and generations.
The campaign saw leading contenders with busloads of their supporters criss-cross the country. The insanely popular soccer stars and legions of artists and singers were roped in to unabashedly extol the superhuman virtues of their favoured candidate.
All that ended on Monday and the candidates have been told not to appear on television, give interviews or address rallies, which have been generally well attended as Egyptians began to savour the heady fruit of their democratic transition.
However, in fast-food restaurants and sidewalk cafés where Egyptians, in true Arab tradition, consume endless cups of black tea or draw on the shisha (water-pipes that draw on fruity flavoured tobacco), the anticipation is strong. However, no clear voting patterns seem to have emerged.
“I am going to vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi,” says M.G. Mahmoud, a 23-year-old worker at a restaurant in Cairo's upscale Zamalek neighbourhood. He explained that Mr. Sabbahi, a respected poet who draws inspiration from modern Egypt's founder, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was the right presidential candidate who could bring real change, in a manner that would create jobs, open up education and make the streets cleaner. “The Islamists are not going to do that, and we cannot trust people like Amr Moussa or Ahmed Shafiq who were associated with the Mubarak era,” says Asma Mahmoud, a young woman at the restaurant, referring to the two heavyweight candidates.
A short distance away at the cerebral Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, some researchers, peering over stacks of files or typing into desktop computers, agree that Mr. Sabbahi has been gaining impressive, but not decisive, ground toward the tail-end of the campaign. “The contest is wide open, but I still do believe that Amr Moussa, Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate has an edge over others,” says Mohamed Ezz El-Arab, a political researcher at the centre.
Mr. El-Arab explains that a large section of Egyptians are looking for “stability, security and gradual change in their lives”.
That enhances the appeal of candidates such as Mr. Moussa and Mr. Shafiq. Both these stalwarts are not at loggerheads with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's interim military rulers whose influence is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. “People are getting fed up with the endless quarrels with SCAF, and are ready for a compromise, so long as the country in general moves along a positive trajectory,” said Mr. El-Arab.
His colleague at the centre, Mohamed Abdel Kadder, points to the “class element that is bound to shape the voting pattern during the upcoming elections on Wednesday and Thursday”.
He says that a large section of the industrial elite and traditionally minded rural folk in the Upper Nile valley appear to support Mr. Moussa and Mr. Shafiq, in that order. The Egyptian “big business”, in his view, has also cast its lot with Mr. Shafiq — seen as a doer “strongman” — and Mr. Moussa, a veteran diplomat who was not in the “inner circle” of Hosni Mubarak, the strongman who was removed from office by a popular uprising more than a year ago. A large section among the minority Coptic Christians — with a heavy stake in security — and Sufi Muslims are also expected to favour either of the two veteran candidates.
But outside the “feudal belt” of the Upper Nile, millions among the urban poor are the core supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and its candidate, Mohamed Morsy. They are likely to vote in droves on Wednesday and their turnout may prove decisive in the final count.
Most of the urban youth who participated in the uprising against Mr. Mubarak may also resent voting for Mr. Moussa or Mr. Shafiq, favouring alternatives either in the liberal or Islamist camp.