CAIRO Egyptians vote for a president on Saturday in a runoff election that for many offers only a choice of the lesser of two evils - a military man who served deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak or a conservative Islamist who says he is running for God.
Reeling from a court order two days ago to dissolve a new parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many question whether the wealthy generals who pushed aside their fellow officer Mubarak last year to appease the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring will honour a pledge to let civilians rule.
With neither a parliament nor a new constitution in place to define the president's powers, voting on Saturday and Sunday will not settle the matter, leaving 82 million Egyptians, foreign investors and allies in the United States and Europe unsure what kind of state the most populous Arab nation will be.
For those who preferred a variety of secular centrists, leftists and moderate Islamists in a first-round election in May, the two-man runoff leaves an unpalatable choice from the extremes. Many speak of boycott or spoiling their paper rather than support Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander who was Mubarak's last prime minister, or Mohammed Morsy of the Brotherhood, the clandestine enemy of army rule for six decades.
"I will vote for neither the one nor the other," 28-year-old Sayyed Mohammed Ahmed said late on Friday in downtown Cairo, where protests against Thursday's voiding of the parliamentary election by judges appointed under Mubarak were muted among a population grown weary of 16 months of political limbo.
"I don't want either of them to be my president," he said. "I feel disgusted, the revolution has been spoiled."
Together, the two polled a little under half the votes in an first round at which less than half the electorate turned out.
Opinion poll evidence is scant among 50 million eligible voters unused to free elections. There are signs exasperation with the Brotherhood's push for power on the back of a revolt driven in its early stages by the secular, urban middle class may limit Morsy's ability to widen his appeal beyond the Brotherhood's disciplined ranks, while Shafik, 70, may appeal to the many who despised Mubarak but now long for an end to chaos.
"He will stabilise the country," said tailor Mohammed al-Sayyed, 70, as he sat in a Cairo cafe not far from Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution. "We've had enough instability and uncertainty," he said as joined friends playing cards and smoking water pipes. "The country is tired."
Another tailor at the cafe, Mohammad Sohagi, 65, said: "Shafik is a statesman. He understands diplomacy and politics.
"Better to vote for someone we know than someone we don't."
Morsy, a 60-year-old engineer with a doctorate from the University of Southern California, has warned that the ruling military council, the SCAF, which took what it called interim power after Mubarak fell, may be preparing to rig the vote and has threatened a new "revolution" if he is denied by fraud.
But while critics denounced the court ruling on the parliament as a "coup" and compared it to the start of the Algerian civil war, when the military cancelled an election won by Islamists 20 years ago, few believe the Brotherhood, which saw its own uprising bloodily put down by Mubarak in the 1990s, is either willing or able to pose a serious armed challenge.
The election, whose result could be declared, at least informally, as early as Sunday night, offers Egyptians their first chance to choose a leader in a national history that stretches back millennia to the age of the pharaohs.
But the euphoria of Mubarak's overthrow on February 11, 2011, has given way to exhaustion and frustration after a messy, often violent and ultimately uncertain "transition" overseen by the shadowy figure of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the SCAF.
Hardline Islamist violence this month in Tunis, where the first Arab Spring uprising inspired Egyptians to emulate their North African neighbours, has also hardened fears of political Islam, notably among those dependent on tourism for a living, secular activists, women and the 10-percent Christian minority.
Both candidates have sought the centre ground, promising to rule in the spirit of the revolution: "It is not correct that the military council wants to rule through me," Shafik said.
Morsy, a last-minute choice for the Brotherhood after their preferred candidate was barred, has played down talk of a crackdown on beachwear and alcohol that would hurt tourism and steered away from confrontation with Israel after three decades of cool peace maintained during Mubarak's military-backed rule.
But both candidates are also defined by those who promoted them. The Brotherhood candidate says he is running because God expects him to offer his sacrifice for the nation. Shafik's air force career shadowed that of Mubarak, his elder by 13 years.
"We are back to the political dynamic of secular versus Islamist, of a civil state versus an Islamist state," said Mona Makram Ebeid, a political scientist and member of a body that advises SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
"That is what we as political forces are confronted with today, causing almost a gridlock," she said, referring to months of wrangling between the army, Islamists, liberals and other parties seeking to carve a new course for the nation.
The result may have swift consequences on Egypt's turbulent streets. Shafik's success in securing a run-off place sparked protests by those fearing a return to Mubarak-style rule. If he wins, more unrest may flare.
And whoever wins faces a huge and immediate task of getting Egypt's struggling economy back on its feet.
The impact will be felt far away. The West, long wary of Islamists, and Israel, fretting about its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, are watching the outcome closely.
A win by an Islamist could frighten liberals who played a big role in Arab uprisings that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. The return of a military man could embolden Syria's leadership as it uses tanks to crush a rebellion.
The election is billed as the last major step before generals formally hand power to the new president by July 1. But whether they have a President Shafik or a President Morsy, the lack of a parliament or constitution leaves much up in the air.
That may suit the military, which is keen to protect privileges and business interests ranging from real estate to mineral water bottling and which is expected to wield hefty influence long after it retreats from frontline politics.
The United States, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion (827.6 million pounds) a year in military aid, and the European Union reiterated on Friday their calls for civilian rule, on schedule. But few diplomats see the army relinquishing much of its influence any time soon.
In a telephone call to Tantawi on Friday, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta highlighted the need to forge ahead with the transition including holding new legislative elections as soon as possible, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Tantawi "reiterated the SCAF's commitment to hold free and fair presidential elections as scheduled and to transfer power to a democratically elected government by July 1," Little said, adding that the two leaders agreed on the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Phil Stewart; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Xavier Briand)