CAIRO As election rallies go it was spectacular. No organisation in Egypt is better at mobilising the masses than the Muslim Brotherhood - or at stirring up the frenzy that suggests to all observant Muslims it is almost a duty to vote for its candidate in the country's first free presidential election this week.
The vote on Wednesday and Thursday will give Egyptians their first real opportunity to decide who and what should replace the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in February last year.
For Egypt's 50 million voters, the choice is a tough one: do they want a republic governed by Islamic Sharia law, a liberal state, or even a guided democracy with the military as guarantor, wielding power behind the throne?
Egyptians have relished their newly won rights, tuning in to an unprecedented television debate, packing into campaign rallies and discussing politics on every street corner. It will be the first time in history that ordinary Egyptians, ruled by pharaohs, kings and military officers, will pick their leader.
Yet, whatever the outcome and whether or not the Brotherhood's man wins, the group that inspired Islamists around the globe and which dominates parliament will remain a powerful force alongside the army, which has ruled for decades and shows no imminent sign of retreating quietly to barracks.
The result looks wide open and there may well be a second round run-off in mid-June. But those who witnessed the Islamic revivalism of its closing rallies in the heart of Cairo and 24 other provinces on Sunday were left in no doubt about the Brotherhood's political reach, as well as its determination to secure the top post in the Arab world's most populous nation.
In the square outside Abdeen Palace - where Mubarak and rulers going back to King Farouk would receive world leaders - the Brotherhood bussed in thousands to cheer for its lacklustre candidate, Mohamed Mursi, who took the stage amid flames, fireworks and frenzy whipped up by youths in white T-shirts and red headbands.
Mursi, 60, a U.S.-educated engineer and experienced parliamentarian, was pitched into the race as the Brotherhood's reserve candidate when its first choice, the group's paymaster Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified by an army-appointed electoral commission over an unresolved conviction.
But, with famous footballers rubbing shoulders with prominent Islamist clerics on stage, the Brothers tried to turn this setback into a virtue, likening the uninspiring Mursi to the substitute brought on to win the game in the final moments.
"In any match there is the reserve who plays in the last 10 minutes, scores the goal and wins the match. Mursi is our reserve player," said preacher Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud as the Brotherhood's elderly leaders stood on the podium in dark suits and ties in front of the cheering crowd.
"God willing, Mursi is the president of Egypt," youths cheered to the beating of drums.
Besides Mursi, the main front-runners are former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, 75, liberal, independent Islamist Abdul Moneim Abol Fotouh, 60, Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak, and Hamdeen Sabahy, 57, a pan-Arab leftist.
The election is supposed to bring down the curtain on a prolonged and turbulent transition to democracy, overseen by army generals who took control after Mubarak was driven out and have pledged to hand power to a new president by July 1.
While observes point to the ability of the Brotherhood to influence elections, they say nobody should discount the role of the army, which has split the vote on both sides by disqualifying Shater and allowing Shafiq to run.
TUG OF WAR
In the army's calculation, a victory for Mursi would give the 84-year-old Brotherhood both executive and legislative power and consolidate a dramatic resurgence of the oldest and best-organised Islamist group in the Arab world after decades of repression by a succession of military strongmen.
It would also show how last year's Arab uprisings have pushed Islamists towards the centre of regional politics. Israel, fretting about the peace treaty it signed with Egypt in 1979 and with Palestinian Islamist group Hamas aligned to the Brotherhood in Gaza and the West Bank, is watching nervously.
The election itself has been tarnished by controversy. The rules have been the subject of a tug of war, mainly between the Brotherhood and the generals. Despite the novelties of a live televised debate, unofficial polls and public rallies, no one can safely predict which of the dozen candidates will win.
While this is a welcome departure after the rigged electoral charades played out in Mubarak's 30 years of autocratic rule, no one knows, either, what the winner will win.
There is no new constitution defining the powers of the presidency, or parliament, the judiciary and the military for that matter, after a court dissolved the constituent assembly set up by the Islamist-dominated parliament as unrepresentative.
"As big as the question of who the winner will be, is what the job of the presidency will be like in the short term, when this election is over, and in long term, after the new constitution is written," said pollster James Zogby.
"Some Egyptians may have set high expectations for this vote, assuming that major change will occur should their preferred candidate win. Most likely, that will not be the case," said Zogby of the Arab-American Institute.
He said the contest would not bring to office a leader who with the power of Mubarak, Anwar Sadat or Gamal Abdel Nasser, who all came out of the military and controlled the ruling party, parliament, the security services and other state bodies.
The one certainty is that whoever wins faces a gigantic task. At least 40 percent of Egypt's 82 million people live on less than $2 a day and 30 percent are illiterate.
EXHILARATION AND FRUSTRATION
Violence and political stalemate since Mubarak's fall have damaged the economy, turning direct investment from an inflow of $6.4 bln in 2010 to an outflow of $500 million last year.
Foreign reserves have slumped by two-thirds and tourism, a big revenue earner, has dropped by a third. Many youths are no closer to getting a job than when they took to the streets.
The exhilaration that followed the toppling of Mubarak has given way to frustration. Egyptians are exhausted and that, rather than ideology, may determine their choice.
Many were still undecided even as polling day loomed.
"I can't decide. I want someone who can provide stability and prosperity. I was with the revolution until Mubarak was toppled but after that the situation worsened and I want to get my life back," said Hussam Sobeih, 45.
Despite the scattered field, a polarised campaign and polls of dubious reliability, there is consensus on critical issues. No candidate wants to scrap the market economy or the treaty with Israel, even if it has been a punchbag in campaigning.
But where they disagree is on Islam's role in the state. While recognising Egypt's Islamic character, Moussa, painted by Islamists as a cigar-smoking bon vivant, stresses the nation's diversity and warns against experimenting with Islamist rule.
Rival Abol Fotouh, who has managed simultaneously to woo liberals and some hardline Salafi Islamists, espouses a vision of sharia that he says will benefit the whole society.
He is trying to break the juggernaut of the Brotherhood, which expelled him ostensibly for running for president against its wishes, though the group's leaders have long been suspicious of his reformist approach that has been compared to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister whose neo-Islamist ruling party has learned to co-exist with a secular order.
Adding to this confused picture is the surge in the polls of Shafiq, a former air force commander who is likely to win votes from Mubarak loyalists and Coptic Christians whose fear of the Islamists outweighs their desire for change.
But a victory for someone so identified with the old order could spark a new revolt against those already denounced as the "feloul", an Arabic word referring to remnants of Mubarak's era.
"The people will not accept another dictatorial regime or a president whose hands were stained with the blood of the martyrs like Shafiq", said Mohammed al-Sayyed, 40, a teacher. "People will go back to the streets and to Tahrir Square."
Making up ground is Sabahy, leader of the nationalist Karama (Dignity) party. His opposition to autocratic rule and non-religious stance could endear him to young revolutionary leaders sidelined after last year's uprising.
For its part, the Brotherhood is urging its followers to make one last heave -- and then put their trust in God.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Marwa Awad; Editing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood)
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