CAIRO and ISMAILIA, Egypt — It remains anyone’s guess who will be the next president of Egypt. And that’s a good thing.
It’s a vast departure from the days of former President Hosni Mubarak, who would win every dubious election in a landslide. It’s even a far cry from last winter’s parliamentary elections, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party coasted to an unsurprising victory.
The excitement surrounding the wide-open race was palpable as Egyptian voters headed to the voting booth on Wednesday for the first of two days of polls. This is the first time in history that Egyptians are able to vote in a multi-candidate presidential election.
It was just over a year ago that Egyptians first took to the streets in an unprecedented popular uprising against Mubarak, forcing the authoritarian ruler to step-down. The dramatic turn transformed the once socially stagnant Egypt into a dynamic, politically-conscious state.
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The 18-day revolt and the year of popular protests that followed, while inspired by Tunisia, sparked similar uprisings across the Arab world, remaking the historically autocratic politics of the region.
So, seeking to capitalize on the revolution that upended their country, voters stood in long lines in the sweltering heat in the capital, Cairo, and in cities and villages across the country.
The country’s uncertain stability was ever-present. Armored military vehicles mounted with guns and labeled “Elections Security Unit,” for example, patrolled the streets in a bid to temper voter concerns of election-related violence and insecurity.
At one polling station in the Suez Canal town of Ismailia, an army-assembled speaker system blared patriotic anthems of Egypt’s greatness.
“Today, I am voting not only for me, but for my children and for my grandchildren,” said Leila Al Sayed, an elderly female resident of Cairo.
The Supreme Presidential Elections Commission, an ad-hoc body administering the polls, extended voting hours by one-hour nationwide Wednesday night, ostensibly due to high voter turn-out, though there were no official figures.
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“We have a chance to give our children a better nation,” Al Sayed said.
So just how are Egypt’s voters choosing their candidates?
“I am voting for Hamdeen Sabahi, as a matter of principle,” said Saleh Ali Ahmed, 39, referring to the dark horse leftist candidate. Being from Ismailia province, an historically Islamist stronghold, his choice is surprising.
“Most of the candidates, they changed their position during the revolution, and then changed again. This is un-Islamic,” he said. “Sabahi, he is not an Islamist, but he is honest.”
According to a survey released earlier this month by the Brookings Institution, an independent research organization in Washington, DC, the highest percent of Egyptians — 31 percent — are using “personal trust” as their primary criteria for choosing a new leader, followed by the economy.
It’s perhaps a reaction to the little trust Egyptians have had in their government for the last three decades, as well as the military council that has governed the country in a sometimes Mubarak-style manner for the past year and a half.
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Thirteen candidates are on the ballot today. But just five are real contenders. Leading the race are: the secular-liberal and former minister of foreign affairs, Amr Moussa; independent Islamist Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh; the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi; former Mubarak regime figure, Ahmed Shafiq; and the leftist Sabahi.
The political Islamists now controlling parliament appear to have lost the popularity they enjoyed during the legislative polls, leaving the presidential race wide open for an array of candidates spanning the political spectrum.
“I voted for Amr Moussa because I am afraid of the Islamists,” said Mona Gomaa, a wealthy resident of the upscale Cairo district of Zamalek, and executive assistant at one of Egypt’s top cement companies.
The same Brookings survey said just 8 percent of Egyptians placed the role of religion in politics as the most important factor in the presidential elections.
“I am worried if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the presidency, we won’t have any more elections,” Gomaa said. “They will just take power.”
Operating under a majority, two-round system, the elections call for a single candidate to score a 50 percent majority plus one vote to secure a victory, or head to a second round of polls that will see the two top-tier candidates face-off on June 16.
The candidates’ personal traits were foremost on the mind of 78-year-old Cairo resident, Suzanne Seddiq.
“I will vote for Moussa because we know him. I know his wife and his family, and I am familiar with his career as a diplomat,” said Seddiq, the widow of a career diplomat in Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs. “He is a statesman and he has dignity.”
Among Moussa supporters, foreign policy ranked as the most important factor, according to Brookings.
For Safa, a 23-year-old accountant from Ismailia, her vote for Mohamed Morsi was based on the stalwart support he receives from the Muslim Brotherhood, the 80-year-old Islamist organization that is Egypt’s largest political force.
“We respect Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh,” the independent Islamist who broke from the Brotherhood to run for the presidency, she said. “But he is just one man. Morsi, he has the Brotherhood behind him.”
But others were also calculating how their vote might affect a potential run-off.
Some were worried that voting for a candidate that stands a lesser chance of winning the presidency — like the leftist, non-Islamist, Sabahi, who ranks low in the polls — would deprive another non-Islamist candidate, like Moussa, of crucial votes he would need to beat rival candidates and make it to the second round.
That would have the same effect as a Democrat in the US casting a vote for an independent underdog Republican like Ron Paul in a state primary because he is unlikely to beat incumbent President Barack Obama in the federal election.
“I feel like it’s all a psychological game,” said Hani Sami, a 29-year-old poet and filmmaker from Cairo. On the eve of the election, Sami still did not know if he would go to the polls or boycott the vote, which is taking place under the watchful eye of the military.
“I want to find out how many people will vote for Sabahi, because that will represent the number of people who are open to my work [as a poet],”
“The presidential elections — they’re like a survey to see who has changed since the revolution,” he said. “And who is willing to change.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo and Ismaila, Egypt