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

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.

Monday's mostly peaceful voting provided a welcome respite after a decameron during which 42 demonstrators were killed and more than 3,200 injured in clashes with the police and military. Some local clashes closed polling stations in Upper Egypt, but by nightfall there still were no reports of bloodshed.

Still, this election is but a step in the still heavily uncertain struggle to end military rule in Egypt. The generals in control only agreed last week to hold presidential elections by the middle of next year, under pressure from the unyielding stand of Tahrir protesters against the belligerent and widely detested police. So far, the military has treated the civilian cabinet as an afterthought. It still insists that no elected official could ever be allowed to have any authority whatsoever over the armed forces. That debate has only begun this month, at least in public; its resolution is far from certain.

For the Egyptians that patiently lined up before dawn on Monday, the vote is still of paramount importance: for the first time, a parliamentary election will be a realistic poll, if a rough one, of the actual preferences of the Egyptian people. It won't be a festival of ballot-box stuffing, thuggery, and vote-buying like the country's previous elections.

"The old service that Mubarak used to offer, where he would cast a vote on your behalf while you sat at home, has been cancelled," liberal candidate Basem Kamel told a rally a week before the vote. "If you don't like the next parliament, you'll have only yourself to blame."

On Monday, Kamel dodged traffic on foot while visiting the polling stations in Shoubra. When he received a report that someone was collecting identity cards to vote on behalf of a group of woman, he burst out the door of his headquarters.

"Move, move, move," he grunted, as he rushed to the polling site at the Faculty of Engineering on Shoubra Street. He pushed past the military policeman at the door and checked in each of the six classrooms where women were voting.

The judge supervising in one of the rooms smiled at Kamel. "Pray for us," he said.

He didn't spot any overt wrongdoing, although he did see volunteers from some political parties in the voting rooms, steering people to choose their party when asked for help reading the ballot.

"I didn't find anything," Kamel said.

His coalition stands to do best among the liberals, but the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to be the top finisher. It benefits from nearly 80 years of grassroots organizing and considerable funds.

The Brotherhood's might was on display outside of polling stations, where it had set up information tents where volunteers on laptops could look up a confused voter's correct polling place, and helpfully mark it down for him or her -- on a card emblazoned with Islamist party's logo.

Sherif Mostafa, a civil engineer who waited hours to vote on the desert plateau of Moqattam, said he was sure the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party would succeed in parliament, despite the military council's desire to neuter it.

"I hope the whole system changes," he said. "These are very decisive elections, which are going to decide the future of Egypt."

As the front-runner, the Muslim Brotherhood attracted the most complaints for campaigning on election day, especially from Kamel's liberal Egyptian Bloc.

Already, tensions have flared between the Islamist and secular parties competing for seats; between the liberals standing for election and the revolutionaries who would boycott; the military dictatorship and the panoply of political forces agitating for genuine civilian rule; the realists who want to absorb old regime stalwarts into a new government and the purists who want to banish them.

This week's voting is just one gyration in a long orbit. There's still plenty of room for missteps and mayhem in the parliamentary polling alone. Then comes higher hurdles: writing a constitution, electing a president, negotiating a modus vivendi with the military, and learning to wage politics in state that for 60 years has allowed none. Indeed there are, as Manar Ahmed sagely observed, lots of mistakes still to be made and lots of new skills to be learned.