05/25/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

Egypt's Election Need Not Be So Confusing

We are starting to get some signals of the outcome of Egypt's historic presidential election, the first since the revolution... and many of the millions of Egyptians who bravely took to the streets last year to make it happen may be wondering whether they should be happy or concerned. The probable answer is both. And the challenge is to use the good to ensure progress in building the country's future in a transparent and accountable manner.

Preliminary indicators point to two candidates prevailing in this week's voting who differ significantly when it comes to background, experience, orientation and vision: Mohamed Morsi, the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafiq, a former minister and prime minister under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Both benefited from solid on-the-ground organizations that virtually all their rivals lacked. And they are now poised for a face off in next month's decisive second round.

For a nation that has not tasted democracy for generations, this presidential election is remarkable. No wonder so many Egyptians have embraced it with enthusiasm and hope; and have done so in a generally peaceful, disciplined and well-mannered fashion.

The election speaks to a broader change that cannot, and will not, be taken away from Egyptians: their liberation from fear and repression, and the related conviction that they now "own" their country and finally have a meaningful say in its future well being, if not responsibility for it.

This change is visible in the surge of civic engagement, as well as the vibrant political discourse. It is also apparent in the heightened expectations which have led to periodic bouts of impatience and frustration.

If confirmed, the preliminary outcome of the presidential election may also raise legitimacy concerns in some circles -- not in the sense that the voting failed the "free and fair" test but, rather, that it took place on a playing field that is far from level. Indeed, while the presidential candidates had more time to prepare and campaign than those who stood for last year's parliamentary election, their initial conditions were nevertheless quite different.

These concerns are likely to translate in a rather noisy run up to next month's second round. They also suggest that the immediate aftermath may be far from smooth.

It is for all these reasons that many Egyptians may feel confused about what the election means for them and for their country. And they may even wonder whether to take to the streets again or, instead, stand back and give next month's newly-elected president a chance to govern. This decision could well be influenced by the country's delicate economic and financial situation.

Egypt needs to move decisively to address its mounting economic and financial challenges. This must be done in the context of successful efforts to improve social justice (the main theme of Morsi's campaign) and also restore law and order (Shafiq's election priority). And this needs to accompany a sustainable return of the armed forces to the barracks.

There is a time when every revolution reaches the critical pivot point when it should transition from dismantling the past to building a better future. It is almost always a very tricky and uncertain pivot, and it is hardly ever without risk.

Egypt is at this stage now. And the circumstances of the transition are particularly challenging.

The key for Egyptians is to use their newly-found freedom and voice to keep their elected leaders accountable, in both the legislative and executive branches of government. And, because of their brave and inspiring revolution, they have the ability to do so in a manner that, not so long ago, was deemed unthinkable.

The whole world has a stake in their success.