In Egypt's Elections, More Than Just Political Parties Clash

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Today's vote pits Islamists against secularists, campaigners against boycotters, the military leadership against the civilian one, and a legacy of autocracy against the hopes for democracy

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A woman reads her ballot paper before casting her vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Cairo / Reuters

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt took another step, albeit a conflicted one, along the trajectory it began in Tahrir Square almost ten months ago. Millions voted Monday in a parliamentary election marred by the ham-handed meddling of the ruling military junta, but with almost none of the widespread violence and fraud that many had feared.

"I'm suspicious, but I have to do something," said Manar Ahmed, a 27-year-old trying to make a career transition from call center work to tourism. On Monday, she heeded the call of Egypt's revolutionary youth parties, which urged people to vote and then join the anti-government sit-in at Tahrir now in its tenth day. She wore a colorful orange floral print headscarf and listened patiently as two of her friends explained why they were boycotting the election. Once they finished, she calmly but firmly disagreed.

"We're going to make many mistakes along the way, but we have to learn from our mistakes," Ahmed said. "We have to work, and see what happens. We still have to learn how to think."

Revolutionary parties, consumed for the last ten days in a wave of murderous police violence and the protests it spurred in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, faced a quandary. Many of their supporters urged a full boycott. "If we vote, we give legitimacy to the military, which is illegally ruling our country," said Albert Saber, 26, who refused to cast a ballot even though he had already chosen a line-up of independent pro-revolution candidates in his east Cairo district.

At the same time, the activist party leaders realize that the next parliament will play a key role in a transition to civilian rule, if one occurs, and they understand they might have more influence if they have a voice inside the chamber of deputies as well as on the streets outside.

"The next parliament will have no authority, same as the last one," said Moaz Abdel Kareem, a youth leader and founder of the Egyptian Current Party, founded by liberal breakaway members of the Muslim Brotherhood youth wing. "This election is fake, a special effect to make it look like the military is working for the people."

His party suspended its campaign, but its candidates still stumped in polling stations on Monday as part of their unified list, which they named "The Revolution Continues."

There was a tangible sense in Cairo that street protest was being left behind, dwarfed by voter turnout and the cautious embrace of electoral politics that it heralded. With notably less enthusiasm than they showed during a national referendum in March -- the first poll after the Tahrir Square uprising -- Egyptians queued for hours, with a mix of muted excitement and markedly modest expectations.

"Change won't come immediately. It will come step by step," said Taghreed Ibrahim Hassan, 46. She had come to vote in Shoubra, Cairo's most densely populated area, with female relatives spanning three generations; she stood out in the voting line for her loud laugh and booming exclamations of enthusiasm.

"This time our voices will count," she said. "This parliament won't represent us perfectly, but we won't be stuck with it forever."

Up until the day before voting began, there was uncertainty whether it would be postponed or even cancelled. The election process has been remarkably confusing and opaque. Even some sophisticated, internet-equipped citizens have been unable to figure out when and where they're supposed to vote. The country has been divided up into three regions, which vote at different times. Each region has a two-day vote, and a runoff the following week; furthermore, voters have to cast two ballots, one for individual candidates and one for parties. Even professional elections experts have described the setup as bewildering.

The final votes for parliament will be cast in mid-January, and the body won't convene until March. So far, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which retains full dictatorial powers in Egypt, has suggested it will not relinquish any control of the government to the next parliament -- a position that has infuriated many Egyptian political activists.

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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