Iman, a 24-year-old student at Cairo University, smiled as she walked out of the Tunisian embassy in Zamalek and proudly held up her left forefinger, which had been stained with purple ink. “We are happy,” she says. “Everyone who came to vote is happy.”
Iman is one of dozens of Tunisian expatriates living in Cairo who took part in early voting on October 20 in Tunisia’s first elections since the ouster of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali nine months ago. On Sunday, October 23, millions of voters in Tunisia will head to the polls to elect a 217-seat constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting a new constitution and charting the country’s future.
The poll marks the first comprehensive general election of the Arab Spring and—its own problems notwithstanding—highlights sharp differences with what is expected to be the second: Egypt’s parliamentary elections scheduled to begin November 28.
“After several depressing weeks in Egypt this is a breath of fresh air,” wrote Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based journalist and political analyst, on his blog this week after arriving in Tunis to cover the elections. “It makes you wish Egypt had followed the same transition model.”
Less than six weeks from Egypt’s first post-revolutionary elections, uncertainty and fierce disagreement abound over the direction of the country’s transition. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which took charge following Mubarak’s ouster, has come under heavy criticism for its proposed electoral law and timetable for a handover of power.
Earlier this month, leaders of thirteen political parties signed on to an agreement with SCAF that was widely denounced by activists and politicians, as well as its own rank and file. The pact lays out a roadmap that could keep SCAF in power until 2013, contradicting the army’s pledge in February that it would return to the barracks within six months.
Under the current timetable, elections for the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Parliament) will begin next month and proceed in three stages ending in January. Elections for the Shura Council (the upper house) will begin in January and end in March. Both houses will then convene in late March or early April to elect members of a provisional assembly that would draft a new constitution, a process that could take up to a year. The constitution would then be put to a public referendum. If approved, presidential elections would be held within two months. Until then, the army would assume the powers of the presidency.
Many question what real authority the nascent parliament would have in the shadow of the ruling military junta. “The timetable is horrifying,” says Hani Shukrallah, a prominent member of the Social Democratic Egyptian Party who handed in his resignation in protest after the party leader signed the agreement.
The agreement includes no promise to lift Egypt’s draconian “emergency law”—in place since 1981—denying the right of assembly and giving security forces virtually unrestrained powers of search, arrest and detention. Shukrallah describes this as “the breaking point for me.”
“I really can’t fathom the reasons behind signing this document,” he says. “Something must have dulled their minds. Really how you could sign on to this horror, this rubbish?”
The only concrete concession made by the army was to agree to amend the elections law to allow political parties to field candidates seats that had previously been reserved for independent candidates—a third of all the seats. Political parties had previously threatened to boycott the poll unless the controversial provision was cancelled.
Registration for candidates opened last week. Among those who registered for the independent seats are scores of former members of Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party, including former cabinet ministers, parliamentary committee chairmen and business tycoons. At the same time, prominent opposition figure Ayman Nour was barred from running after a court refused to overturn his 2005 conviction on forgery charges in a trial that was widely criticized in Egypt and the international community.
“It’s not logical that Ayman Nour gets banned from practicing his right to stand for the presidency while the remnants of the regime and the corrupt are running for office,” Hamdeen Sabahi, a presidential candidate, told Reuters.
Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent journalist, labor organizer and activist with the Revolutionary Socialists, says he plans to boycott the elections all together. “These elections are happening while the generals are still ruling and it’s going to a circus and I will not give it legitimacy.” Hamalawy also points to the fact that the head of the Interior Ministry’s electoral department, State Security police general Mohamed Refaat Qomsan, who oversaw the Mubarak regime’s rigged parliamentary votes in 2005, 2006 and 2010, will be among the supervising body overseeing the upcoming elections.
“We have to continue with the revolution, we have to overthrow these generals and that’s when we can sit down and have national elections,” says Hamalawy.
While the calls for an elections boycott are not currently widely supported, there remains widespread concern over a potential outbreak of violence in light of the country’s precarious security situation. Preparations for the elections are taking place in the wake of the army’s bloody crackdown on a peaceful demonstration of largely Coptic demonstrators in downtown Cairo on October 9 that left at least twenty-four people dead and hundreds more wounded. The incident marked the bloodiest act of repression by the Egyptian army since it took power.
“What happened on October 9th made me feel that there won’t be elections,” says Esraa Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist who manages the Egyptian Democratic Academy and was widely considered to be a frontrunner for this year’s Nobel Peace prize. “I honestly don’t know what will happen.”