CAIRO -- As Egyptians prepared to go to the polls on Saturday in what was supposed to be the triumphant culmination of their year and a half old revolution, a sense of despair and frustration settled over the city that helped set the Arab Spring in motion.
The final vote in the presidential election, which is set to take place on Saturday and Sunday, should have been a cause for celebration. Eighteen months after an uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square brought the end to the dictator Hosni Mubarak's 30 years in power, Egypt would for the first time be choosing its own leader.
But with two candidates whom few of the original revolutionaries support -- Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, a prime minister under Mubarak -- and a shocking last-second court ruling that invalidated the previously elected parliament, many of the exhausted and frustrated revolutionary youth of Cairo instead have found themselves struggling with whether they should boycott the vote -- and if there has even really been a revolution in the first place.
"Any sensible man or woman would agree that no revolution around the world gets settled in 18 days or in 18 months," said Hossam al-Hamalawy, a journalist and prominent figure in the Revolutionary Socialist movement. "There is definitely a downturn that we've been going through for a while where SCAF is holding the upper hand," referring to the military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
But others believe the "downturn" may be something more permanent. "I don't think there was ever a revolution," said Michael Hanna, who has closely followed the events and is an Egyptian political analyst at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in New York. "I'm borderline sick of hearing myself say this by now: There hasn't been a revolution, and the old bureaucracy is still in place."
Though Mubarak was forced out of office in February 2011, the country has been ruled by SCAF since his ouster. It initially promised an orderly transition to civilian rule, but has largely defended military interests and, in the eyes of many Egyptians, the former regime.
Shafik, a former Air Force general, initially faced disqualification from the weekend's vote because of his ties to the old regime. But the election law that would have prevented him from running was overturned on Thursday in the Constitutional Court, which also dissolved the Parliament that was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling, along with actions like the expansion of military arrest powers earlier in the week, have convinced many voters that SCAF was attempting to maneuver Shafik into office with few constraints on his power.
With each development, the choices for revolutionaries grew increasingly difficult to parse: A vote for Morsi might mean installing an official whose religiously-based ideals many in Tahrir find reprehensible; on the other hand, not voting at all could help give the election over to Shafik, a vestige of the old regime.
Against that backdrop, Morsi had sought to portray himself as the revolutionary choice. At a fiery press conference on Thursday, he described the election as "the revolution at the ballot boxes."
"We call upon the great Egyptian people to turn out in million-man marches to the ballot boxes because then the forces of darkness will not dare falsify your will as you fill voting stations in defense of your revolution and your children’s future," his campaign wrote in a statement Friday.
It was an idea that, in the aftermath of the court ruling, was beginning to catch on.
"A lot of people decided to boycott, but now they are going to vote for Morsi so Shafik will not get control," said Ahmad Ezz, who attended protests through 2011 and worked on the presidential campaign of liberal candidate Khaled Ali.
But Ezz acknowledged that for many of his friends, the recent court ruling had left them only more convinced that there was no way to vote without undermining the revolution. "It's impossible to tell," he said, of the general state of uncertainty.
On Friday afternoon in Tahrir Square, that uncertainty and despair was palpable, as a planned protest drew no more than a few hundred people. "Dozens rally against Shafiq in Tahrir," read the telling headline on the website of an Egyptian newspaper. Passersby appeared to outnumber protest attendees.
When asked if they were disappointed by the size of the crowd, a group of men responded with an angry chorus of "yes."
The numbers grew later in the night when marches planned by revolutionary groups converged on Tahrir. But the overall crowd remained small, a fact that al-Hamalawy said was easily explained. "People are exhausted," he said.
"If Shafik wins, they will all be back here on Monday," said Sayyed Mohamed, while insisting that "we won't let that happen." The 50-year-old shop supervisor said he was refusing to vote but would be happy to see Morsi win the election.
But even if voters are faced with unpleasant choices and an uncertain future, many insisted that the events of the past 18 months still mean that Egypt is unlikely to return to its pre-2011 state.
"I don't think you go back to the status quo," said Michael Hanna, the Egyptian political analyst. "Something very important happened [last February]. There are now political parties, there is politics, there are elections -- perhaps managed elections, but elections -- and a convergence of real opposition to the SCAF here and there. And there is a much more expansive ability to express yourself."
Rather than killing the revolution, he argued, the events surrounding the election mean that "the timeline for change now, for real, deep-seated, fundamental change, is multi-year."From within the revolution itself, al-Hamalawy agreed. "My argument is we should not be pessimistic because, yes, we are heading into some rough times. It will last for several months or a few months, I don't know. But there will definitely be an upturn coming soon ... This is a long war against the regime."