CAIRO -- Egypt has experienced many historic moments since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from the presidency 446 days ago, but Wednesday marks a true first the first presidential election in Egypts history where voters dont already know who the winner will be before they cast their ballots.
The air of uncertainty here is both unnerving and exhilarating, after three decades that saw Mubarak returned to office with nearly unanimous and rigged vote totals.
We are afraid of whats coming, said Ahmed Hussein, 26, as he stood outside the Church of the Virgin Mary in Cairos Imaba neighborhood. One year ago, bearded men charged through the sanctuary and set the church ablaze, and since then Egypts Coptic Christians have felt besieged.
Husseins friend, Rami Ahmed, 25, a taxi driver, said he felt just the opposite. We spent 30 years silenced and afraid to speak, he proclaimed. Why should we feel afraid now?
Voters will find 13 names on their ballots when they go to vote Wednesday and Thursday. But who will emerge as No. 1 and No. 2 and headed to a runoff in June is anybodys guess. So far, there have been four frontrunners since the election cycle began nearly two months ago, according to the various unscientific polls that have been published here. Their political platforms are wildly different, from Islamists promising shariah to unabashed proponents of the Mubarak order.
Its not just the election outcome thats unclear. So is whether the military council that rules the nation now will hand over power to a president. The presidents duties are also unclear since Egypt has yet to approve a new constitution. And there are few internal monitors to assess the validity of the polling, opening the door to charges of vote rigging.
Part of the uncertainty is that there are no proper polls conducted here. Various unscientific surveys conducted over the past month by groups like the government-owned Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and newspapers like the independent Al Masry al Youm have concluded that various candidates are in the lead. Each campaign also claims to have polls putting their nominee in the lead.
The latest al Ahram poll, released Sunday, put Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, in first place with 31.7 percent, an 8 percent drop from his standing a month ago.
Ahmed Shafik, Mubaraks prime minister, came in second place at 22.6 percent, up 2.6 percent from a week ago. Such a finish would put two candidates who once held posts in Mubaraks government in the runoff.
Another poll conducted by Al Masry al Youm during the same period put Shafik in the lead with 19.3 percent of the vote. And the Egyptian Cabinets Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), a government based organization, gave the lead to Shafik by 12 percent in a poll released May 15. But given that many believe that Shafik is a government-favored candidate, many Egyptians are dubious about its findings.
The al Ahram poll put Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in third place, moving up from fifth early in the campaign and gaining 5 percent in one week. That would still have him miss the runoff, but the backing of the Brotherhood, Egypts largest political organization, makes predicting the outcome impossible. The Brotherhood is thought able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of voters.