CAIRO: For the Egyptians who fought so hard to unseat the regime that dominated their lives for 30 years, the results of the first round of the country's first free presidential election are unthinkable.

Instead of working towards desperately needed economic reform, they are faced with an impossible choice in next month's run-off elections - the Islamist candidate backed by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement, Mohamed Mursi, or the candidate seen as a feloul, or remnant of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq.

Providing some faint hope to the young revolutionaries and progressive voters, the leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, who polled strongly and came in at third place, announced over the weekend that he will appeal for Egypt's presidential election to be suspended over alleged voting irregularities.

The former US president Jimmy Carter, who led a team of electoral observers, said the process had been ''encouraging'' despite constraints, including observers being prevented from seeing the collation of counted votes at regional stations.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mr Mursi offered to cooperate with other political parties if he is elected president.

''Our goals are the same, our path is the same. All of us seek stability, democracy and freedom. We also share the aim of stamping on remnants of the corrupt regime,'' he said.

His opponent, Mr Shafiq, pledged to start a new era. ''There is no going back,'' Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying.

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party already dominate the new parliament after winning 47 per cent of the vote in the November/December elections. Many Egyptians - particularly Coptic Christians and other minorities - fear the possibility of Islamists controlling both the executive and the legislature.

''We went from a one man show with Mubarak, to a one group show with the Brotherhood,'' says Mohamed al-Guindy, an orthopaedic surgeon who was one of the volunteer doctors staffing the makeshift field clinics during the violent government crackdown on protesters in Tahrir Square last year.

Like many Egyptians, Dr Guindy is scathing in his criticisms of the Brotherhood's performance in parliament.

''There has been no progress. It has been exactly the same - there has not been a single point of improvement, wages are still the same, people are still suffering,'' he says.

''I am not asking for the impossible here - I do understand that change cannot happen in three to four months but … by just taking your seat in parliament and literally doing nothing helps no one.''

One major issue that is yet to be resolved is the new constitution - the committee charged with drafting the document collapsed over allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood had stacked the group with its own members.

Out of 100 members of the original committee, there were just six Christians, six women and a handful of liberals.

A supporter of the former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who came in last of the five front-runners in the first round, Dr Guindy says he will have to consider backing Mr Shafiq, who the former president Hosni Mubarak appointed as prime minister in the dying days of his regime.

Echoing many the Herald spoke to in Egypt, the 27-year-old said he did not want the Muslim Brotherhood to take the presidency: ''I am a Muslim, but I do not think you should combine religion and politics. I think it is a dangerous mix.''

There is a real sense of a missed historic opportunity, says a prominent Egyptian blogger, Bassem Sabry, of the failure to run a ''unity'' revolutionary candidate in the election.

''There is now a sense of heavy-hearted confusion as progressive revolutionary Egyptians find themselves torn between three painful options,'' he wrote on his blog An Arab Citizen.

''The first would be voting for what seems to be a hungry and increasingly-conservative political machine that is at odds with much of their beliefs … voting for a secular-leaning candidate who immediately represents an autocratic regime they fought with their lives to bring down … and a boycott.''

But a boycott, he notes, will damage the broad appeal needed for an urgent national reconstruction effort.

Officially, Egypt's unemployment rate is 12.2 per cent, however experts say the country's enormous informal employment sector, where many barely make enough to live, masks a much greater problem.

Its gross domestic product growth, 7.2 per cent in 2008, is forecast to fall to 1.5 per cent in 2012 and its GDP per capita is $US6500. And while official figures indicate 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, it is widely believed the real rate is as high as 40 per cent.

''Egypt's problem is not just one of economic mismanagement but of endemic corruption,'' a research fellow in Middle East politics at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, Elizabeth Iskander, says.

The country is facing a series of urgent and complex economic challenges - most significant is its crippling unemployment problem, she says.

''This is the problem that affects all Egyptians directly, [it] was a main contributing factor to the frustration that fed the uprising and it will be the indicator that many Egyptians will judge the success of the new government upon.''

The incoming president must ensure the government designs economic policies that promote employment, reform the taxation system and lift education and training levels, says associate professor of political economics at the American University of Cairo, Samer Soliman.

''The Egyptian taxation system now is unfair and inefficient, it is biased against the poor and the middle classes, it is full of corruption, fraud and avoidance.

''In the long run the whole future of the Egyptian economy depends on the capacity of the new regime to reform state institutions, to reform education and reform the public sector and taxation.''