Egyptians have been watching the presidential elections drama closely and even restlessly. The registration window for the country's first post-Mubarak presidential elections -- set to take plae on 23 and 24 May -- closed on Sunday, 8 April, with many last minute suprises.
In a sudden move, ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman submitted his candidacy papers in what many see as a betrayal of the revolution. What's more, the Muslim Brotherhood, who have always affirmed that they would not put forward a presidential candidate abrupty introduced two of its leaders: Khairat El-Shater and as a back-up plan Mohamed Morsi given doubts around El-Shater’s legal eligibility to run. Meanwhile, Salafist candidate Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail may not be eligible to run due to his mother’s alleged American nationality.
These recent moves have been the fuel for speculation and gossip on the streets of Cairo. Is there a deal between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Brotherhood? Is there a deal between the SCAF and Omar Suleiman? What is being cooked? Some feel these political games will see their favourite candidate thrown to the wolves. Others feel that despite these games, the elections will be democratic and fair. If all goes according to the electoral commision's plan, a new president will be named by 21 June, a timeframe that allows the country's military rulers to meet their pledge of transferring power to a civil administration by the end of June 2012.
In one of the busy gift shops in downtown Cairo, the discussion between the shop cashier and sellers goes as follows:
"Today Mohamed Morsi and Safwat Hegazi announced they will run for the presidency, each replacing Khairat El-Shater and Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail," announced 21-year-old cashier Ahmed Salah.
"I have a feeling that the Islamic candidates will shrink to one. We will vote for any Islamist candidate. The best was Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, but America doesn't want him. Suleiman ran because the United States wants him, he is Mubarak’s right hand," said 24-year-old Essam El-Sayed
"It is either the Islamists or Omar Suleiman, why is there no moderate choice, something in between?" asked Mohamed Refaat, 32.
"We tried the secular liberals, Mubarak was liberal and friends with America and Israel, let's try the Islamists for four years," said Salah in response.
But why do Salah and El-Sayed want an Islamist candidate? "I want an Islamic candidate to apply Sharia, to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, and to veil women," said Salah, struggling to make himself heard with the loud western pop music in the background.
He said that the music is haram, "I only listen to it because I am at work. Music is not allowed in Islam. Also women are not allowed to walk without the veil in Islam," said Salah, while eyeing a young unveiled woman.
El-Sayed said he will vote for an Islamist because "those who don't rule by Islam are kafirs (infidels)".
But Salah and El-Sayed did not say how veiling women and banning music will make their lives better. They earn LE700 ($130) a month and stand in the shop for 12 hours a day. Neither is married and neither can afford to start a family.
Across the bridge from Salah and El-Sayed in a chain cafe in the upscale neighbourhood of Zamalek, Noha Abdel-Hamid and her husband Ahmed Adel are having their lunch.
Abdel-Hamid feels relieved that Suleiman decided to run for the presidency. "He is a tough man and he can control the country. Yes, we won't be an advanced country during his term, but at least he can bring security and stability. What is happening in Sinai is scaring me, and we can't afford unsecured borders with Israel now."
Abel-Hamid, whose blonde hair is tied up in a long pony tail revealing her elegant shiny diamond earrings, added, "We need Suleiman to reclaim our relations with the US and the region."
She admits that Suleiman was very close to Mubarak and his regime, but "what choice do I have, I wanted to choose Mohammed ElBaradei or Ahmed Zweil because they have a vision, but they aren't running. What options do I have? I don't trust Islamists. The Brotherehood said they won't run; then they run. I can't trust them."
"Also I don't want new people that will experiment – Egypt can't afford experiments now." Here her husband interrupts, saying jokingly, "But the Islamists will also veil your hair."
Abdel-Hamid ripostes, "I don't mind wearing the veil, if you will provide me with healthcare, proper schooling for my kids, all those things, but I know Islamists won't achieve this. I wear it when visiting Saudi Arabia."
In a sense, Abdel-Hamid thinks democracy is unfair to upper classes: "We work 10 hours a day, we pay for everything -- schooling, education, healthcare, we pay taxes and we educate our kids. Yet our destiny is in the hands of the majority of uneducated less privileged Egyptians."
Outside the children’s playing area in one of the shopping malls in the satellite city of 6 October, a group of young mothers discuss the sudden moves in the presidential race.
"The Muslim Brotherhood want to be in control of everything: parliament, local councils, the constitution and now the presidency. They even have two candidates," said 24-year-old mother of two, Radwa Osama.
She seemed hopeful though that Parliament is discussing a law to ban remnants of the former regime from running for presidential elections. "That will save us from Shafiq, Moussa, and Suleiman," said Osama. Here Reem Mahmoud interrupted: "Omar Suleiman's decision to run gives me a stomach ache."
"I feel that Mubarak is coming back to power, I am so worried about the revolution. I feel that the military council will side with Omar Suleiman," said Mahmoud who works as a logistics supplier in a national company.
Aya Assem disagreed, "If the Brotherhood is serious about running they will win; look at what happened in Parliament and with the constitution," she said.
"I don't think the military council will allow them to control everything," said Mahmoud, suggesting that this was perhaps part of why Suleiman was running.
The three young women disagree on the possible manoeuvrings planned by the powers behind the scenes, but they all agree on one candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.
"He is moderate and trusted. He comes from an Islamic background but understands politics and he has always sided with the revolution. He is also consistent with what he says and does," says Mahmoud.
The three are wearing headscarves and jeans; they all participated in the protests during Egypt's popular 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak after 30 years in power.
They agree that if Salafists or the Brotherhood win, the only changes would be in their dress code. "They will make us all wear niqab and stay at home, but nothing will change in terms of economics, or social change," said Mahmoud, who expects violence on the heels of the presidential elections.
"I know that whoever wins, people won't be happy, and they will take to the streets again. I am worried that this time protests may not be peaceful, and people maybe very angry," she said.
In the street market, the discussions are not different. Some are shocked that Abu-Ismail will not run. "I saw him once on TV, he looks very down to earth and pious; he is also from the countryside," said Amina Mohamed, who now does not know how to vote following Abu-Ismail's possible withdrawal.
Ali Hussein, a poultry seller, disagrees and says this is not Abu-Ismail's time. "We need someone who can communicate with the world. Someone who can bring investment and understands politics," said Hussein, who will vote for Amr Moussa.
"I hoped that the revolution would bring new people to the scene, I wanted to vote for someone new, but there isn't. They all have beards; we can't afford this; we need someone to put Egypt on the map first," said Hussein.