Bloodied, battered and uncertain, millions are limping to the polls Monday in the first Egyptian election in more than 60 years in which the outcome isn't known in advance.
The region is holding its breath, as the prospect of an Islamist government in the Arab world's largest nation worries both neighbouring Israel, with which Egypt has a peace treaty, and others such as Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Nine months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and after countless protests against various incarnations of the regime now holding power, the Egyptian people themselves finally will be choosing a new parliament. The process is seriously flawed, and many Egyptians wanted it delayed, but for better or worse, it's the only opportunity they have to take charge of this anarchic country.
Inside polling stations, people will likely find chaos, the ballots difficult to comprehend and lots of intimidating pressure from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is just the first of three regional rounds of voting but the results in the major population centres of Cairo and Alexandria will likely foretell the final national outcome.
Though polls show support for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is sliding, it's taken as given that the Islamist organization will do well – the Brotherhood has a long-time following, name recognition and an organization capable of delivering the vote. Just how well the party does will depend on a number of factors:
The party to watch
The Free Egyptians Party, created after the Mubarak ouster by communications billionaire Naguib Sawiris, has set itself up as the polar opposite to the Islamists and allied itself with two smaller left-wing parties – the Social Democrats and Tagammu. As such, they are polling well among the secular intelligentsia and among Christians who are most fearful of an Islamist government discriminating against them. The party enjoys a reputation as a modern, business-savvy group and markets itself more in large media buys than in street-level campaigning. Nasser Zachary, 22, a first-time Christian voter in the Cairo neighbourhood of Shubra, says he's voting for the Free Egyptians because they're more honest than anyone else. "They're already rich," Mr. Zachary says. "They don't need the money from corruption."
The big disappointment
The Completing Revolution Alliance is made up of a number of small post-revolution parties that shared the experience of protesting in January and February, prodding the army into removing then-president Hosni Mubarak. They have not, however, been able to translate that success onto the big political stage. Indeed, the Alliance turned back to protesting on Nov. 19 and abandoned campaigning out of respect for protesters killed in clashes with police. To make matters worse, many dedicated protesters who might have been expected to vote for the Alliance have chosen, as another point of principle, not to vote at all as long as the army and Interior Ministry are responsible for law and order. "The number of seats is not all we care about," said Someya Adel Torky, a leading party member. Apparently resigned to the Alliance's fate of garnering only a small number of seats, she said that "having seats in people's hearts is what really matters."
The big question
Will Islamists outpoll the moderates? Though running in competition to each other, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Nour Party of the Salafists are the two largest Islamist parties. Their combined clout could play a major role in determining the nature of the next government and, more importantly, the makeup of the constitutional assembly the parliament will establish. The main check against Islamist excesses will be the combined strength of the Free Egyptians Party and its allies, the older, independent Wafd Party, a couple of smaller independent parties and the Completing Revolution Alliance. It may not be enough.
The big surprise
The Wafd, the nationalist liberal party that enjoyed popularity in the 1920s and 30s, is making a comeback of sorts. A big reason would appear to be that the party has one of the few names people recognize among a dizzying assortment of new factions. Traditionally, it also has been the default party for the country's Christians and may still be acquiring some of their votes.
The big unknown
The Salafists, whose support base is difficult to track, could garner anywhere from 6 to 16 per cent of the national vote. Leaders of the Nour Party go to great lengths to demonstrate that many professionals and moneyed people are involved in the Salafist party, but its greatest draw appears to be in the country's poorest neighbourhoods, areas that are difficult to survey accurately. However, while those areas may harbour uncharted supporters, they also are areas in which it's difficult to get people out to vote. Salafists, by their own admission, lack the kind of organization that the Muslim Brotherhood can employ for such tasks.