Egypt on Wednesday set a May date for its first-ever free presidential election, a much-anticipated vote that would bring to an end the rocky transitional period that followed the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising a year ago.
The ruling military has pledged to turn over power to civilians after the presidential election, and that would mean an end of six decades of authoritarian rule where secretive generals pulled the strings of power from behind the scenes.
The elections begin May 23 and 24. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two finishers would take place June 16 and 17.
For the first time in Egypt's modern history, the name of the new president will remain unknown until June. 21, the day set by Election Commission to announce the winner.
There were no such mysteries during Mubarak's 29-year-rule. Massive vote-rigging turned Egyptians away from elections, as they knew that results were determined beforehand _ Mubarak and his party were always assured of clear victories.
The military took control after Mubarak's exit and at first pledged to hand over power within six months. That was too quick a timetable for reformers, who insisted they needed more time to prepare for elections.
Since November, voters have picked the two houses of parliament, dominated by Islamist parties, while the military is still firmly in overall control. The new parliament's main task is to pick a 100-member panel to write a new constitution for Egypt.
The military has come under stiff criticism for its handling of the transition period, scarred by frequent violent protests and continued economic malaise.
Leaders of the uprising have charged that the military is employing the harsh, repressive tactics of the Mubarak regime against them. Scores have been killed in anti-military street protests and clashes over the past year, and the military is accused of torturing detainees and putting at least 10,000 civilians on trial before military tribunals.
With the transition period now stretched out to nearly 18 months, some are fearful of last minute maneuvers by which the military may decide not to hand over power at all.
For decades the military has not only been a kingmaker of all of Egypt's presidents, but also has given key government posts to generals after their retirement, including serving in the Cabinet, as heads of government departments, provincial governors and mayors.
The new president could define the future role of the military.
Two of the top of the presidential hopefuls, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, have warm relations with the generals. Shafiq is a former pilot in the armed forces. Two other strong presidential hopefuls, ultraconservative Hazem Abu-Ismail and moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, would be likely to try to deprive the generals of a significant political role.
The ruling council also said that the formation of the panel that would write the constitution has been set for March 3.
That is seen as a setback for revolutionaries and activist groups, who have been pressing the military to relinquish power before the constitution is written. They fear that if the army is in control when the document is drawn up, the ruling generals will manipulate the process to ensure the military keeps its pre-eminent position and remains above civilian oversight.
The head of Election Commission, Farouk Sultan, told a nationally televised news conference that a 21-day presidential election campaign period would begin April 30, more than a month after candidates can begin submitting their applications for the race.
Sultan said the commission intentionally extended presidential vote over three months, "to give enough time and equal opportunity for Egyptians inside and outside the country to vote."