Egypt's presidential campaign has been full of startling moments. At one point, ousted President Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister rode into a rally on a white horse like a knight, promising to restore Mubarak-era stability and ensure secular rule.
A veteran of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq was himself booted from office by protests weeks after his former boss fell last year. Now he's a presidential candidate, his dramatic entrance before a cheering crowd typifying the choices facing Egyptians in this week's landmark vote, between voices from the authoritarian past and Islamists promising an uncertain future.
Egyptians can choose from an unimaginable range of 13 candidates following decades of fixed contests that guaranteed Mubarak's re-election. Perhaps most surprising, the election is completely up in the air a day before voting starts Wednesday.
No outright winner is expected from the two-day vote, so a runoff is scheduled for June 16-17 between the two top finishers. The winner will be announced June 21.
The four front-runners show how _ despite an unprecedentedly open race _ the pool of politicians to draw from remains limited even after the "revolution."
All of the candidates are firmly rooted in the old system, either from Mubarak's regime or from its traditional opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood. No prominent new figure clearly representing the revolutionaries' call for secular democracy has emerged.
Of the four top contenders, Shafiq _ a former air force pilot like Mubarak _ appeals to those yearning for a return to the Mubarak era. Openly contemptuous of the Jan. 25-Feb. 11, 2011, revolt against Mubarak, he has seen a rise in recent polls.
"No Islamist will win this race. It is not right to have an Islamist for president," Shafiq told a popular TV program last week. He lashed out at the protesters that brought Mubarak down, saying they should stop assuming the moral high ground given the chaos since the 18-day uprising.
"What 18 days? ... After all that time, look at what is going on," he said.
In a sign of how polarized things are, Shafiq is the only candidate who's had a shoe thrown at him on the campaign trail.
The prospect of Shafiq making it to the second round infuriates both the revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, which had hoped to ride to power during the post-Mubarak transition.
The Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, has sought to rally supporters by lashing out against "feloul" _ the "remnants" of Mubarak's regime. He has enjoyed the backing of pro-Brotherhood clerics whose edicts declare it sinful to vote for such candidates _ and the Brotherhood's well-oiled machine, which has campaigned neighborhood by neighborhood, urging the movement's tens of thousands of followers to recruit 20 new voters each.
"We will step on them ... and then we will throw them to the garbage of history," Morsi said of the "feloul" at a rally Sunday night before the official end of campaigning.
Marwa Mahmoud, a Brotherhood follower at the rally, called Shafiq "a silent devil."
"He's backed by the military and the government. Part of his plan may be to bring back all political prisons," she said. "But this doesn't scare us. We were not scared before the revolution. We only got more fearless after the revolution."
The groups who led the uprising against Mubarak view Shafiq's return as an offense against their revolt _ particularly since the bloodiest attack on protesters occurred while he was prime minister. Men on camels and horses attacked Tahrir Square and fought the protesters for hours, leaving 11 dead.
"His place is in prison, not as a presidential candidate. The revolution is retreating, that is why he is running as president," said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, a leftist protest leader. "He uses tactics of the state security for the sake of recreating the old regime."
Recently Shafiq's supporters stormed the Journalists' Syndicate and broke up a conference about his links to the former regime and corruption allegations against him. Such moves have led critics to accuse Shafiq of imitating Mubarak's tactics of harassing rivals.
Nevertheless, Shafiq has risen by clearly targeting a population frustrated with the turbulent transition, plagued by violent clashes, increasing lawlessness and an economy in disarray.
As a result, the race has grown more polarized, hurting candidates who try to take a middle ground, says Diaa Rashwan, the head of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, which has been conducting weekly polls for several months.
Shafiq's rise has come at the expense of another former regime official, Amr Moussa. Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade, Moussa has campaigned as an elder statesman and against Islamists, though without the sharpness of Shafiq. And he lacks Shafiq's military background, which appeals to Egyptians looking for a strongman.
The moderate front-runner on the Islamist side has also shown signs of wavering. Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has tried to be a bridge candidate, appealing to liberals, secular Egyptians and ultraconservative Islamists.
But such broad appeal has grown harder to maintain as the sides sharpen, Rashwan said.
For some Egyptians, Shafiq has hit all the right notes. He has fashioned himself in the traditional Egyptian leadership mold of a strong hand, promising to resolve the country's security problems within 24 hours, to bring "quick successes" to improve the myriad economic problems and to quash protests once he has the mandate of a popular vote.
Asked if his victory could ignite a new uprising, Shafiq said: "If (Tahrir Square) is on fire, we will extinguish it by law." He cited the example of a violent army crackdown on protests this month outside the Defense Ministry.
Adel Mansour, a 61-year former army lieutenant, said Shafiq's military background made him qualified to take Egypt out of chronic poverty and lawlessness.
"I know what it takes," said Mansour. "In front of your enemy you are firm. But when you are dealing with civilians, you are kind and you take care of them."
Shafiq also benefits from the fear among moderates and Christians of the rising influence of Islamists like the Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis.
"They (the Brotherhood) can't alone be representative of Egypt. We too are Muslims," said Gaber Qassem, the leader of a group of Sufis, a mystical Muslim movement viewed with suspicion by fundamentalists like the Brotherhood. Qassem's group has declared its backing for Shafiq, extolling his reported lineage as a descendant of Prophet Mohammed.
Anwar Rizk, a Christian garbage collector, said he prefers Shafiq over Moussa because he fears what will happen if Islamists get their way. Rizk said he recently saw a man chasing a woman because he accused her of not wearing "proper" Islamic covering.
"How is this your business?" Rizk asked. "Only God can judge this."
Whoever wins this week's vote, the power struggle among Egypt's multiple players is only just beginning, Rashwan said.
"The political conflict will remain hot," he said. "It is not the beginning of a new republic. The new president's success will depend on how he lays the groundwork for the new republic. But he won't found it."