A difficult choice?
As Egypt strives to find its way back towards democracy, its first credible presidential elections have turned into a showdown between two diametrically opposed ideologies.
With the parliament controlled by the Freedom and Justice Party and Nour Party, the country is now torn between those who want a religious state and those who want a civil state.
Proponents of the civil state wish to live in a democratic and modern state in which all citizens are equal and the law doesn't discriminate against anyone on grounds of race, gender or religion. Their demands are in harmony with the country's history of liberal democracy, as enshrined in the 1923 Constitution.
Egypt maintained its legacy of liberalism until 1952, when it began to slip into totalitarianism for reasons having to do with questions of social justice and liberation. Up to this point, Egyptian liberalism failed to reduce the gap between rich and poor, and it also had no success in ending British occupation.
The totalitarian regime, which took form in a gradual way in the mid-1950s, was one that pledged to improve the lot of the masses, and was spectacularly successful in ending foreign occupation. The 1952 regime also made an effort to improve conditions in rural areas, where most of the population lived.
The 1952 revolution may have interrupted the course of liberalism, but this only happened because our liberal regime of the 1930s and 1940s failed to live up to the nation's expectations. The selfishness and narrow-mindedness of pre-1952 politicians is partly to blame for the totalitarian tendencies of the Nasserist era.
In 1970, President Anwar El-Sadat made a half-hearted attempt to reinstate political pluralism. Then, since 1981, the crony capitalism of the Mubarak years robbed politics from any semblance of fair play.
Today, when people demand a civil state they demand a revival of the liberalism we once had. In a civil state, people are allowed to judge a situation on its merits, without having to grapple unnecessarily with religious text.
Egypt's liberal phase, had it not been marred by British manipulation and palace conspiracy, would have been one of the brightest in our history.
Incidents such as that of 4 February 1942, when the British forced the palace to appoint Mustafa El-Nahhas, the Wafd leader, as prime minister, show how liberalism failed to function as smoothly as it was supposed to.
Also, the post-1923 liberal regime faced opposition by conservative religious groups that loathed Western-style modernity. These groups singled out for criticism the country's leading intellectuals and anyone who wanted to base knowledge on reason, not on religious texts.
Facing the wrath of the religious rightwing were men like Taha Hussein, who was fired from academia for his critical examination of Islamic heritage, and Ali Abdel-Razeq, who also dared to challenge tradition by examining the relation between the mosque and the state.
The Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928 by Hassan El-Banna, made a point of assailing the principles of secularism, aiming instead to establish a theocracy.
The conflict between the liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood was long and bloody. The Brotherhood's underground militia, known as the "secret outfit", assassinated those key liberal figures, including prominent judge Al-Khazendar and Prime Minister Mahmoud El-Noqrashi.
Such action met a harsh response by the state. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in 1948, and El-Banna was assassinated a year later. Under Abdel-Nasser, the Brotherhood kept a low profile, as its members were hunted down and thrown in prison by the unsympathetic regime. It was only under Sadat that the Brotherhood saw its chance, for he freed them in the hope of countering what he saw was a leftist threat to his rule.
Eventually, some Islamist groups espoused violence as a way of achieving their objectives. Both the Gamaa Islamiya and the Jihad waged attacks on Egyptian officials and foreign tourists in an effort to overthrow the government. These groups later on revised their ideas and renounced violence. Now, they have their own political parties that -- surprisingly enough -- are less intolerant than the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.
The major political conflict in Egypt is not between the two men running for president, but between the proponents of the civil state and those who propagate a theocratic regime. The former dream of a modern democracy guaranteeing basic freedoms to its citizens, while the latter demand a mullah-dominated regime, perhaps even a caliphate.
This coming round in the elections will tell us one thing: which of these two groups has the support of the nation at large.