Tucked away inside the Farouk Café, a lively teahouse in the bustling, blue-collar district of Ain Shams in eastern Cairo, two carpenters smoked cigarettes and yearned for the return of a dictator. "Under Hosni Mubarak, there was money," said Shams el-Sayyid, his eyes burning as brightly as his red and white chequered shirt. "Egypt is a big country, and we need an army man to run it."
After the announcement from Mr Mubarak's former spy chief, Omar Suleiman, that he has decided to contest next month's presidential election, the two men could get exactly what they are looking for. Mr Suleiman, who served as head of Egyptian intelligence for 18 years, startled opponents by announcing his candidacy this month despite earlier ruling himself out.
As one of Mr Mubarak's closest confidants, he is now being viewed as the military's anointed successor; a Trojan horse candidate who, if successful, can preserve the ruling Military Council's hold on power. But his candidacy has outraged many opponents, who see the re-emergence of Mr Mubarak's right-hand man as further evidence of a revolution gone to seed. Yesterday, in a show of opposition to candidates linked to Mubarak era, thousands of Islamists descended on Cairo's Tahrir Square for a Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored rally. And although Mr Suleiman appears to be facing a challenge after the lower house of parliament passed a bill preventing former regime figures from running for president, the rule is not likely to be ratified by the ruling generals.
The bombshell from the former intelligence chief came during an electrifying fortnight in the race. First, there was a dramatic about-turn from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, controls nearly 50 per cent of the new parliament. After promising last year not to back an official candidate – largely to reassure liberals and Christians who feared an Islamic power-grab – the group nominated a millionaire businessman for the job.
Then, last week, Egypt's election commission issued a statement which appeared to provide a final nail in the coffin of Hazem Abu Ismail, an ultra-conservative preacher who has been poleaxed by embarrassing claims that his mother was an American citizen. Under Egypt's election laws, candidates must be able to prove the Egyptian nationality of their parents and grandparents.
Unfortunately for Mr Ismail, whose campaign has been characterised by fiery anti-Western rhetoric, officials claimed they had seen documents proving that his mother obtained American citizenship shortly before she died.
This week, however, a court ordered the Egyptian authorities to provide proof that his mother was American. The pandemonium underscores the divisions that have complicated Egypt's transition to civilian rule.
At a recent Abu Ismail meeting, Ali Salah, a 25-year-old street vendor, told The Independent he would vote for the preacher because of his commitment to introducing an Islamic state. "We had civil rule before," he said. Judging by the results of the recent parliamentary contest, in which ultra-conservative Salafi candidates won a quarter of the vote, Mr Salah is far from alone. Religion has cleaved an ugly fissure through the new political terrain.
The assembly charged with drafting Egypt's new constitution is stuck in a quagmire, with secularists, liberals and some Islamic members quitting over concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood has too much clout. But according to Dr Amr Darrag, a leading member of the Freedom and Justice Party, such allegations are unfair.
Last week, the Freedom and Justice Party took another battering over its decision to field Khairat el-Shater, the Brotherhood's second-in-command, as a presidential candidate. It led to claims from some liberal groups that the party had orchestrated a political ambush. Dr Darrag said the reversal came about because the military appeared unwilling to hand over power. Offering an analogy, he added: "It's like if I say I'm not going to swim in the sea, but then I see my son drowning. I have to say that I will go in."
Among liberals conspiracy theories abound. According to Khaled al-Khamissi, a novelist and newspaper columnist, the Brotherhood's decision is "a play" designed to claw back lost credibility and conjure up a conflict with the military. Others believe the issue of religion is a red herring. "Religion is not the issue," said Sally Sami, a campaign manager for Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer seen by many as the candidate most in tune with the secular activists who helped spearhead Egypt's uprising.
There is the possibility that a Brotherhood candidate could split the Islamic vote, with the other religious candidates, such as Abu Ismail or ex-Brotherhood reformist Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, seeing their share disintegrate. This is all good news for the felool, the disparaging Arabic term given to those representing the former regime.
According to a poll from the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Mr Mubarak's former foreign minister, Amr Moussa, is leading the race with 31.5 per cent, followed by Abu Ismail on 22.7 per cent and Omar Suleiman at just under 10 per cent. Ahmed Shafiq, who was named prime minister in the dying days of Mr Mubarak's regime, had 10.2 per cent. The survey was conducted prior to last week's about-turn by the Brotherhood, but nevertheless points to a revolution which still reeks of the old regime.
"The next president will be someone from the army or Muslim Brotherhood," said Khaled al-Khamissi. "It's because it's all a play, and unfortunately the play was not written by Shakespeare or someone who can write well. It feels like it was created by a stupid writer."
From iron men to Islamists: Egypt's presidential contenders
Served as Hosni Mubarak's intelligence chief for nearly two decades. Named vice president during last year's uprising, it was Suleiman who announced Mubarak's resignation on TV.
Deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood. A multi-millionaire behind-the-scenes operator, el-Shater spent 12 of the past 20 years in prison under Mubarak's crackdowns on the Brotherhood.
Known for his criticism of Israel, he was Mubarak's foreign minister, then became Arab League secretary-general in 2001. One singer put out a tune, "I Love Amr Moussa and I Hate Israel", which was a big hit.
Hazem Abu Ismail
A lawyer turned television preacher, Abu Ismail has emerged as a favourite of ultra-conservative Salafis, mirroring their calls for the implementation of a strict version of Islamic law.
A former Air Force commander who briefly served as prime minister in the last days of Mubarak's rule. He was replaced shortly after the old regime fell, amid protests over a Mubarak figure holding the post.