Historically, a parliament almost entirely dominated by a ruling party has endorsed a single candidate for the post. That candidate has then been presented to the public for its endorsement.
But opposition parties have been pushing for years to change this single candidate system -- a system that has produced a succession of all-powerful and longstanding rulers, including current President Hosni Mubarak.
Today, the government's response to that pressure is being put to the public. Egyptians are being asked to vote "yes" or "no" on whether to adopt a constitutional amendment that requires the president to be directly elected by voters choosing between multiple candidates.
However, it is far from clear how many people will turn out for the referendum. One reason is that all the main opposition parties have called for Egyptians to boycott today's poll.
Wa'il Hallil, a member of the opposition movement Kifaya, puts the reasons for the boycott this way.
"I think it became clear through the events of the past weeks that the amendment to the article [of the constitution] is anything but real reform. The kind of extensive additions that they [the government] put to the amendment to make sure that it is anything but democratic [made] it clear that they don't want real change, they want the image of change," Hallil said.
Kifaya, which in Arabic means "Enough," is an umbrella grouping largely composed of liberals, leftists, and nationalists opposed to Mubarak, who is considering running for a fifth six-year term in office in September.
Opposition leaders say the government has tailored the amendment to assure that Mubarak, who is in his mid-70s, wins in September or that his 41-year-old son, Gamal, wins should he run as his father's successor.
Some 19 members of Kifaya -- which has spearheaded street protests against the government -- were arrested on 24 May for putting up anti-Mubarak posters.
More than 750 members of Egypt's largest opposition group -- the Muslim Brotherhood -- also have been rounded up during the last two months. The Brotherhood is a once outlawed Islamist organization that now has a few members in parliament but otherwise is banned from political activity.
Still, some Egyptians describe any broadening of presidential elections to include competitors as at least a step toward a more open political system.
"This is considered as a historic and symbolic step by the [ruling] National Democratic Party itself and as an incipient step to open the door for further change by the political elite and the intellectual elite. [As for] the opposition, of course, they reject it, not the step itself to amend the constitution, but because of the restrictions that have been made [to apply] after the amendment of the constitution," said Hala Mustafa, the editor in chief of the "Al-Ahram Democracy Quarterly," a journal of the state-funded Al-Ahram political research institute in Cairo.
The conditions that the government has attached to the amendment proposal are numerous and complex. They come in two stages, some to be applied to the upcoming September election, others to future polls.
Under the amendment, independent candidates would need support from 65 of the 444 elected members of the lower house of parliament. In the lower house, the ruling National Democratic Party currently holds 90 percent of the seats.
Recognized political parties are permitted to field candidates in September. But in subsequent polls, they will need to first win 5 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament to do so.
Joshua Stacher is a political analyst and long-term resident of Cairo who is closely watching the referendum. He says the restrictions on would-be candidates include conditions that can be still more stringent than getting parliamentary approvals.
"The conditions are even a little bit more stringent than that. In regards to the parties, they have to have been working for five years. So, for instance, the Labor Party, which was frozen [by the government] in 2000 and is still frozen, if they were to activate it tomorrow, it would have to go five years before it could field candidates, which gives the state an awful amount of power because what they can do is they can freeze a party temporarily [and then] unfreeze it and say, well, you have to go five years now," Stacher said.
In the runup to the referendum, lawyers for opposition groups filed five petitions in administrative courts to request the plebiscite be postponed.
However, the courts rejected some of the petitions and said they had no authority to rule on the others.
The referendum comes as Washington -- one of Egypt's most important allies -- has pressed in recent months for governments in the Middle East to become more democratic.
U.S. First Lady Laura Bush, the wife of President George W. Bush, said on a visit to Cairo on 23 May that Mubarak "is very wise to take the first step" toward opening up elections.
But the United States has also expressed some reservations about the language of the constitutional amendment.
Britain's "Financial Times" daily reports that Elizabeth Cheney, the U.S. State Department official charged with promoting democracy in the region, has said the language poses "serious obstacles" to opposition parties and independents.
The results of Egypt's referendum will provide a test of whether publics in the Middle East will embrace gradual democratic changes on the terms of the ruling parties or, instead, stay home in protest -- or from lack of interest.