CAIRO — Egypt officially started on Saturday the process of holding its first-ever free presidential elections with candidates able to submit their applications.
But already the much-anticipated presidential race has been marred by intense speculation that the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most powerful political group, is working behind the scenes with the country's ruling military generals to come up with a consensus candidate to run in the election.
Politicians from the era of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, ex-military officers, and moderate and hardline Islamists are expected to be the front-runners in a vote slated for May 23 and May 24.
The election follows decades of authoritarian rule in which all of the country's presidents were elevated from the ranks of the military and usually approved by referendum.
Mubarak, who was forced to step down last year after an 18-day mass uprising, was elected to his last term in 2005. Those were Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections, but they were rigged.
The country's ruling military council, which took over power after Mubarak's fall, pledged to transfer power to elected civilian authorities after the new president is announced June 21.
The revolutionary youth movement that led the uprising performed poorly in the first post-revolution parliamentary elections that ended in January. Many in the movement are fearful that the generals will try to keep their grip on power after a new president is inaugurated by helping push forward a candidate they find amenable.
Such worries escalated with recent media reports claiming that the generals have negotiated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist bloc that holds the near-majority of seats in parliament, to produce a "consensus president."
The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most powerful political group, denied the reports, but this has not quieted the fears that the group would throw its massive backing behind a nominee approved by the generals, who would then presumably steamroller any other candidate.
The Brotherhood has not announced which candidate it will support, but has pledged in the past not to back present or even former Brothers — a stance viewed an attempt to assure liberals, secularists and western allies worried that Egypt is becoming too Islamic.
Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic movements, said the Brotherhood wants "a puppet" it can control who has little popularity but who is also acceptable to both Islamists and the military. He said the Brotherhood is eying not this election but the next presidential vote in four years.
"They are trying to defuse fears to protect their political enterprise," he said. But he said there is a risk that an unpopular figure could alienate the very Egyptians who are the Brotherhood's main supporters.
Two of the top presidential hopefuls, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and former Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, have warm relations with the generals.
Moussa is popular among middle class Egyptians. He has made cautious statements that appear critical of a political role and privileges for the military, but he's still considered a product of the Mubarak era. Shafiq is a former pilot in the armed forces who was forced to resign from his post as a prime minister last year because of alleged ties with Mubarak.
Two other strong candidates, ultraconservative Hazem Abu-Ismail and moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, have frostier relations with the military and are thought more likely to try to deprive the generals of a significant political role after a transition of power.
Most recently, a 75-year-old former information minister Mansour Hassan joined the race. His nomination increased speculation of a "consensus" candidate because he is seen as possibly supported by both Islamists and the military.
The ruling military council, whose members were appointed by Mubarak years ago, has been accused of steering a messy transitional period and of trying to discredit and intimidate the revolutionary forces by prosecuting them and heavily cracking down on their protests.
Critics believe that the generals are looking for a president who will preserve their special privileges, mainly no civilian oversight of their budget, and to keep the chairmanship of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in the hands of a military man rather than a civilian.
Secular-leaning youth revolutionaries will have few prominent candidates reflecting their views. Prominent democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei ended his presidential bid in January saying a fair election is impossible under the military's grip.
This leaves the youth movement with few choices other than human rights advocate Khaled Ali — who lacks ElBaradei's national prominence — and Abolfotoh — who strikes a defiant tone against the generals and has taken some liberal stances, but who still identifies with Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood and whose overall agenda remains ambiguous.