Thousands of people crowded into a tent on a dirt lot in this all-but-forgotten town north of Cairo on a recent afternoon to hear Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

Some came because they had already decided to vote for the moderate Islamist, a front-runner in the presidential campaign. Others wanted to know more. But all shared the anticipation and sense of responsibility that are building here as the May 23-24 vote approaches, the first time in modern Egypt that the winner of a presidential election is not a foregone conclusion.

The contrived campaigns and guaranteed landslide victories for autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak were swept away with last year’s revolution. Now 13 candidates — liberals, Islamists and Mubarak-era figures — are vying to succeed him.

Mohammed Kamal Tahawy couldn’t believe that one of them had come to his town to ask for his vote. The tour guide listened intently as Aboul Fotouh told the crowd, “The king of this country, after God, is you, the people of Egypt.”

Orange posters emblazoned with his bespectacled face adorned the tent where Tahawy and other supporters cheered him on, fists pumping in the air: “The people want Aboul Fotouh for president!”

Tahawy, like so many other Egyptians, said he had never voted in a presidential election because the outcome was always predetermined. But Aboul Fotouh, he said, was right: This time, Tahawy and the more than 50 million other eligible voters will decide.

“Today is my birthday, and I feel alive,” Tahawy said on the day he turned 27. “No one has ever come here before. No one has ever asked what we think.”

Since the official launch of the campaign season April 30, presidential contenders have been pleading for votes in television interviews and at rallies. They travel the nation’s 27 provinces, kissing babies, shaking hands and trying to get the support of undecided voters.

The Muslim Brotherhood is holding so many rallies for its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, that while he attends one, other prominent Brotherhood members host simultaneous events elsewhere in the country.

To the deep disappointment of young revolutionaries, the race has turned into a showdown between leading Islamists and figures from Mubarak’s government. Although many of them are boycotting the vote, they represent a small slice of society.

‘A big responsibility’

When Aboul Fotouh stopped in the northern Egyptian town of Abu Kabir, Youmna Ahmed, 15, craned her neck to see him, screaming, waving his picture and nearly fainting, as if he were a young pop star.

Her mother, who wears the face veil favored by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists, doesn’t leave her house often. But Jihan Abdel Ghafour spent a full day handing out fliers for Aboul Fotouh. She said he understands religion and Islam’s holy book, the Koran.

The time for secular and repressive leaders is over, she said. “We’ve taken time to make our comparisons. He has our support.”

Omnia Aboel Ata filmed Aboul Fotouh’s speech on her digital camera. The 24-year-old said she admires his views on women; Aboul Fotouh has said women should be allowed to hold high-ranking government positions and touts their importance in society.

But she’s still undecided, afraid to make the wrong choice for Egypt. She joked that it would be easier if Mubarak were still in power, because then she and others would not carry this difficult burden.

“It’s a big responsibility. Imagine if we make the wrong choice. We will all pay,” she said. “It’s so confusing.”

Standing nearby, Sadiq el-Sayed Sadiq scowled.

Aboul Fotouh has no experience, Sadiq said. And, until he severed ties with it to run for president, the candidate was a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization, he said, that looks out only for its own interests.

Sadiq, 51, said he was angry that the Brotherhood had fielded a presidential candidate, Morsi, despite promises not to, and that his business as a merchant has ground to a halt. The Islamist-dominated parliament, he said, has done nothing to alleviate the country’s economic woes.

“I just came to listen to him lie,” Sadiq said of Aboul Fotouh. “I hope he doesn’t win.”.

Sadiq said he wants Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq — who is seen by revolutionaries as an arm of the old regime and the favored candidate of the military rulers — to lead and finally stabilize Egypt after a year marked by bouts of violence, continual protests and a faltering economy.

Seeking a liberal alternative

A couple of days later, Aboul Fotouh’s arch rival on the campaign trail, Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief and the liberal front-runner, was in the presidential suite of the Marriott Hotel, in the upscale Cairo district of Zamalek, being interviewed by the ultraconservative Islamic channel al-Nas. He was trying to reach out to puritanical Muslims who will probably vote for his Islamist competitors, reminding viewers that he is a Muslim and not against Islamists but that he believes in freedom of expression.

Then he rushed downstairs to have lunch with more than 100 representatives of 42 Bedouin tribes. Moussa had spent weeks traveling around the country to win their endorsement and, with the lunch, they publicly offered their support.

As Moussa stopped at each table to shake hands and greet tribal leaders with traditional kisses, they were already referring to him as “Mr. President.”

As he settled onto the stage, a man jumped up from his seat to recite an impromptu poem.

“Tomorrow, God willing, the command will be yours and you will be president of Egypt,” Mohammed Seif Mohammed said, before rushing up to the stage for a quick hug.

Some of the tribesmen said they saw the former foreign minister as a source of stability. Most said he was the right man for this transitional phase, a face of the past and a man of experience at a time of deep uncertainty. After all, Mubarak wasn’t that bad, said Muftah Gibrany, a member of a Bedouin tribe.

“Mubarak’s palace was 500 meters from where we live, and we used to salute him,” Gibrany said. “Now we have hope in Amr Moussa and God to solve our problems.”

Special correspondents Ingy Hassieb and Haitham Mohamed contributed to this report.