Hundreds of voters waited patiently outside the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo's upscale neighborhood of Zamalek early Monday morning for a chance to cast their ballot in Egypt's first election following the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak last February. Many read newspapers or conversed quietly in pairs as the line inched forward. The faces of parliamentary candidates beamed out at them from campaign posters plastered outside the school walls with the thoughtful, mid-distance stare practiced by politicians seeking office the world over. Voters emerged from the polling booths holding up ink-stained fingers to prove their participation on the first day of Egypt's nationwide parliamentary elections.
Across the street, a young man stood alone, his hands in his pockets as he stared ruefully at the queue slowly shuffling by. "I don't feel pride at all, I feel broken" says Hussein, a 29-year-old working in digital advertising who had not yet decided whether to vote. "This is not in the revolutionary spirit, this is compliance. This is bowing your head down."
The scene reflects the broader complexities of Egypt's first post-revolutionary elections: an eagerness to participate in the democratic process soured by the realities of a deeply flawed transition plan and the heavy yoke of military rule.
Over the past nine months, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that assumed power following Mubarak's ouster, along with a political elite largely looking out for its own interests, have created a deeply confusing electoral system designed to elect a parliament that has no clear mandate or authority and one that, many fear, will serve to further entrench the military's power.
Monday's elections are the first in a parliamentary poll that will take three months to complete. Nine of Egypt's twenty-seven governorates will vote in three separate rounds for the People's Assembly (lower house) and will repeat again for the Shura Council (upper house). Both houses are scheduled to convene in March, though under the current constitutional declaration that serves as Egypt's interim constitution, the parliament will be largely toothless. The Supreme Council is granted the authority to issue laws by decree, appoint the government (including the prime minister) and sign international treaties.
Voters that went to the polls for the People's Assembly elections had to make three selections: one list and two individual candidates. The lists are drawn up by parties or alliances and two-thirds of the house seats are allocated this way on a proportional representation system. The remaining third of the seats are open to individual candidates, half of which must be workers or farmers, categories that date back to the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The vote calculation process is extremely complicated, baffling even political scientists and election law experts.
While the primary mandate of the incoming parliament is the drafting of Egypt's post-revolutionary constitution, the process by which a constituent assembly would be chosen has not been finalized. Under guidelines proposed by the interim government in October, the Supreme Council would appoint eighty of the 100-member body while the parliament would select just twenty. The guidelines would also deny parliament the right to review the military budget and allow the army to interfere in political life. The proposal sparked an uproar but an alternative plan has yet to be agreed upon.
More importantly, the elections come in the wake of a new uprising in Egypt, one that reignited in Tahrir Square last week and quickly spread to Alexandria, Suez and several other cities. The clarion call of the renewed revolt is clear: an end to military rule.
The uprising first erupted on November 19 when Central Security Forces stormed a small sit-in of a few dozen protesters in Tahrir. Riot police beat and arrested those who had set up camp. In response, hundreds of protesters descended to Tahrir in solidarity. They clashed with security forces and forced them to retreat back towards the headquarters of the Minister of Interior. The fighting quickly escalated into some of the fiercest street battles in Egypt since the revolution began.
For five days—nearly 120 continuous hours—thousands of protesters, most of them young men and women, did battle with security forces. Police used live ammunition, rubber bullets, shotgun cartridges and an astonishing amount of tear gas. Protesters fought back with rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail. What began as a minor street clash had turned into a war of attrition. Downtown Cairo was transformed into a battle zone with a constant white fog of poisonous tear gas wafting in the air. At least forty-two people were killed and more than 3,000 wounded.
In a matter of days, the protests grew from a few dozen to hundreds of thousands filling Tahrir Square in what was perhaps the biggest challenge to military rule in Egypt in sixty years. "The more they kill us, the more we multiply. And that has always been the story of this revolution," says actor and activist Khalid Abdulla.
Noticeably absent from the demonstrations was the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best-organized political group in Egypt. Through its Freedom and Justice Party, the group is expected to gain a large number of seats in the parliamentary elections and pushed heavily for the vote to go ahead on schedule. Their members were out in full force on Monday, clearly visible at every polling station, offering to help voters find their registration numbers and distributing campaign flyers to any passersby.
"The Muslim Brotherhood have a political interest which they are declaring now above demands of this revolution to get rid of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces," Abdulla observes. "I say shame on them."
Thousands of protesters are continuing their sit-in in Tahrir, and many of them are boycotting the elections. They have instead called for the military council to grant full authorities to a national salvation government that could lead the country through its transition. Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is favored by many protesters to lead the group alongside other prominent politicians and young revolutionaries.
Instead, the Supreme Council on Friday named Kamal al-Ganzouri—a 78-year-old who served as prime minister under Mubarak—to replace interim prime minister Essam Sharaf, who had resigned earlier in the week amidst the violent clashes. In response, several hundred protesters marched to the street that houses parliament and the cabinet of ministers to stage an open-ended sit-in.
On Monday, people in Tahrir stood gathered in groups, engaging in vigorous debates about the legitimacy of the parliamentary poll. "Democracy means elections, the question is do we believe in democracy or not? The elections are the only way to get rid of the Supreme Council," argues an old man with the long beard and shorn mustache favored by Islamists. As others debated with him over the authority of the incoming parliament a young man strode in the middle and faced the old man. "Where were you last week while we were here dying? The Brotherhood and the Salafis have sold out the country," he says before storming away.
The calls for a boycott are minimal, however, and the turnout across Egypt of the first day of elections has been reported to be high. A few hundred yards from Tahrir Square, hundreds of women lined up inside the Kasr El Dobara Experimental Language School, a women's-only polling station on Kasr Al Aini street. Standing in the courtyard speaking to voters was Gamila Ismail, an independent parliamentary candidate favored by many protesters in Tahrir square. The week before, she had suspended her electoral campaign in protest of the brutal police crackdown. Ismail is also the ex-wife of Ayman Nour, who ran for president against Mubarak and was subsequently jailed for four years.
"This election is flavored with Tahrir, with the revolution," Ismail says. She had a failed run for parliament in November 2010, the infamous elections that were heavily rigged by Mubarak's National Democratic Party and helped spark the revolution on January 25. "Stepping through this gate in the same place and having a completely different experience is a dream."
When asked about the call for a boycott from Tahrir square, Ismail says, "I think boycotting and staying in Tahrir and the parliament are two parallel routes to the revolution. They serve each other. Without the square you can never maintain the freedom and the free space in politics."
Standing beside Ismail in the school courtyard was 28-year-old Nazly Hussein, an activist with the No to Military Trials campaign. Hussein had been badly injured in her left leg while on the front lines during clashes with police and was walking with a crutch. She had also suffered from slightly blurred vision due to an inflamed optic nerve, the result of being exposed to excessive amounts of tear gas.
"I've never voted before under Mubarak and I see no reason to vote now, nothing has changed," Hussein says simply. "This parliament has no real authority. The Supreme Council just wants to avoid a real handover of power and I will not be a part of this sham to give them legitimacy."
Dusk fell and the Supreme Judicial Committee for Elections announced that voting would be extended for two extra hours in all constituencies to accommodate for the heavy turnout. For now, it seems, the majority of Egyptians appear willing to take part in the political process laid out by the military council. Others, in Tahrir and elsewhere around the country, are firm in their belief that real change can only come in the streets.