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Egypt's activists face an impossible choice

Forced to choose between an Islamist and an ex-general, optimism is fading among Egypt's young.

An Egyptian protester holds a crossed out portrait of presidential candidate and former premier Ahmed Shafiq. Photograph: Getty Images.

I could see the tears in her eyes.

"We must go back to the streets. The revolution did not happen for this."

In a visit to Cairo earlier this month, I heard direct the frustration of those whose courage and commitment helped end Egypt's dictatorship last year. The choice for Egyptians in this week's Presidential run-off between Mohammed Morsi, representing the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party, and Ahmed Shafiq, a remnant of the Mubarak regime, was not one the young activist could stomach.

The veteran dissidents of the Mubarak years were more reflective. "It is not what I would have chosen, but it is progress. If you had told me five years ago that we would have had an election in Egypt where 90 per cent of the vote was divided between five candidates, I would not have believed you."

Later this week, the people of Egypt return to the polls for the second round in their presidential elections. Many have described the choice they face as impossible.

The first round eliminated, in a poll characterised by its closeness, the centrist candidates. In a febrile political environment, the last two weeks has seen the sentencing of former President Mubarak to a term of life imprisonment but the acquittal of his sons on corruption charges. The latter decision prompted a return of mass demonstrations to Tahrir Square. The frustrated youth who brought revolution to Egypt are deeply afraid that the revolution is in danger.

"Whatever happens, Shafiq will win," one voice warned me. Snatched conversations on the street with those in uniform, and there are many of them, testify to the continued importance of the army in Egyptian politics. They see their jobs, their status and their futures under threat. There is a profound, broadly-held scepticism that the military will ever allow their role to be subject to democratic scrutiny. Until they do, the capacity of Egypt to operate as a democratic society will be constrained to the point of impotence. Real power will stay with the army.

"My real fear is that the Brotherhood will cut a deal with the army," another experienced dissident voter told me. "The deal will be made before the election and the Brotherhood and the military, the two parties with organisation, will deliver it." The price will be limits to progress in the revolution - on military control, on women's rights, on real accountability.

There is little optimism in the air. The ambitions of Tahrir Square, so heady in the spring of 2011, seem distant now.  But In a nascent democracy, there is much to be done. New political parties, with distinct ideologies, need to develop and to learn to organise. Those I spoke to in the Freedom and Justice Party, which relies heavily on the organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, are deeply suspicious of international co-operation of competitor parties.

What are they afraid of? Democracy requires different parties and new political activists are eager to learn from those with a democratic tradition. The sooner those with power learn this, the quicker confidence in Egyptian democracy will build.

A new generation has formed a new government in Egypt. But governmental power in Egypt still has limits: the army allows government to operate and government operates with the army's consent. This fundamental obstacle to full democracy in Egypt remains. It will not be overcome by this week's election. But, if full and stable democracy is to come to Egypt, the army, its budget and its power must be placed under democratic control.

That ambition is one which many Egyptians I spoke to share still. They know that is an ambition that will be difficult to realise and one that will not come quickly. But many who spent years in prison under President Mubarak see that steps forward have been taken. More steps are needed, but the political prisoners of the past are still political activists today. They are impressively determined that the journey to democracy will continue - beyond the election this week which gives them a choice they find difficult to bear.