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Story Publication logo November 29, 2011

Egypt Divided Over Elections


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Pulitzer Center grantee Ty McCormick covers Egypt's political transformation by talking with artists...

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Clashes between protesters demanding the resignation of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the country’s interim military government, and security services have left 41 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Image by Ty McCormick. Egypt, 2011.

It's election day here and the mood inside the April 6 Youth Movement's tent in Tahrir Square is, well, sleepy.

"Some of us went to observe the elections, some to vote, and some went home to sleep," says Mohamed Mahmoud, one of the movement's political officers. He yawns, rubs his eyes, fishes in his pocket for a lighter. "But me, I don't think the election is going to change anything."

His is a brand of skepticism that lingers like the stench of so much garbage that has accumulated in the square. It's not official policy to boycott the elections—the April 6 movement, known for its role in organizing Egypt's Jan. 25 uprising, left voting to the discretion of its members—but like most of the die-hards still roughing it in Tahrir, Mahmoud has little patience for what he sees as a smokescreen for continued military rule.

He and hundreds—at times thousands—of others have been camped out here for what has been a violent week and a half. Clashes between protesters demanding the resignation of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the country's interim military government, and security services have left 41 dead and more than 2,000 injured.

"We are exhausted," says Mahmoud, "but we will stay here until our demands are met, until [the military] gives authority to the citizens."

Voting in the first round of Egypt's staggered parliamentary contest has proceeded despite the tense situation in Tahrir and Egyptians have thronged to the polls. By 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the queue to vote in Zamalek, an island neighborhood in Cairo's hotly contested sixth district, stretched around several blocks and officials were asking voters to return the following day because they couldn't handle the volume. Across the country, polling stations were forced to stay open late to accommodate the influx of determined voters, many of whom were casting their first ballots.

Still, there are those even outside of Tahrir who feel the election is diverting attention away from the battle to rein in the military. Mahmoud Salem, a Twitter-celeb-turned-parliamentary-candidate in Cairo's Heliopolis district, would have liked to see the elections pushed back at least a week.

"It's not right that people are going to go vote while protesters are getting killed in Tahrir," he said, noting that the current elections would never have happened if it weren't for the demonstrators. Salem, who is a member of the secular Free Egyptians Party, said that the military's legitimacy has run out and that it "needs to give up the executive branch."

But so far the military has resisted demands for it to cede power to a civilian government. In a statement on Sunday, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, head of the SCAF, reiterated the military's intention to remain at the helm throughout the election and constitution-writing process. "We will not allow a small minority of people who don't understand to harm Egypt's stability," he added, channeling Mubarak-style paternalism. "We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections."

Thwarting meddling of all sorts appears to be a priority for the military, which guards its economic interests jealously. Earlier this month, the SCAF revealed a set of "supra-constitutional" principles that would give the military a status separate from civilian authorities and shield it from parliamentary oversight. According to Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, the military isn't just trying to preserve the status it had under Mubarak: "They're looking for more than that…they're looking to have a status that they didn't have under Mubarak, where they would have the explicit right to override or veto legislation that's related to the military."

As part of that plan the SCAF has invested itself with the authority to appoint 80 out of 100 members of the body tasked with drafting the country's new constitution—this despite the fact that Egyptians who overwhelmingly approved the country's constitutional referendum this March expected the parliament to oversee the constitution-writing process. In Dunne's words, the military has "tried, in the supra-constitutional document, to take away the main task that the parliament had in front of it."

Nonetheless, Egypt's variegated political postulants are eager to inherit whatever limited power the military is willing to part with. The Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, has positioned itself extremely well for the election, with some analysts predicting that it will take as many as 40 percent of the seats in parliament.

But what amplification of their voice will mean in this already deeply conservative society remains to be seen. Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School who advised the Iraqi constitution writing process in 2004, was reluctant to paint the Brothers as radicals. "The Islamists are not trying to go the Iran route; that's not their goal. They want democracy at the same time as they have Islam," he said.

Moreover, the majority of the Brotherhood's constitutional demands are already satisfied by the 1971 constitution—now suspended, but likely to serve as a template for its successor—which enshrines Islam as the source of law.

"There probably won't be any fundamental change in the constitutional treatment of religion in government sought by the Islamists. And that's an important lesson of Iraq, which gave us a very clear sense of what Islamists who form a majority government—what satisfies them on the religion front," said Feldman. Still, Feldman conceded that an Islamist bloc in parliament would likely exercise some sort of "social conservatism-style veto," meaning that the country's post-revolution cultural output could potentially be stunted.

For the liberals camped in Tahrir, this is a step in the wrong direction. The brief interregnum has provided a taste of freedom if not freedom in fact.

"We want liberty," deadpans one heavily bandaged protester, cigarette dangling all John Wayne. His sidekick, not more than 12, explains: "Do you support SCAF or the Ikhwan? Both are donkeys."


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