CAIRO, Egypt -- "Once a nation decides to live, destiny has no choice other than to oblige" a young woman in Tahrir Square says. But destiny’s path is seldom a straight one and as polling stations closed their doors this week on the first stage of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections the mood in Cairo was far from celebratory. Despite a high turnout and widespread relief that the two days of voting had not been marred by violence the elections had left many far from satisfied.
Beyond the concerns at voting irregularities, overly complicating ballot papers and the likely electoral success of Islamist parties, many feel that the election process – due to go on for another three months - lacks legitimacy. Prior to the elections the military led transitional government (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF) proposed constitutional amendments to limit the authority of future governments over the army. This proposal, compounded by frustrations at SCAF’s slow timetable to civilian rule and lack of respect for human rights over the previous nine months, drew tens of thousands of protesters back to Tahrir Square and onto the streets of cities across Egypt.
After five days of violent clashes with security forces which left over 40 dead, SCAF made some limited concessions. Essam Sharaf’s unpopular civilian cabinet resigned, and a new Prime Minister, Kamel el-Ganzoury was appointed and charged with forming a so-called National Salvation Government. Troops stopped their attempts of try to clear protesters from Tahrir Square and the date for presidential elections was shifted from early 2013 to June 2012. But for the protesters in Tahrir Square this fell far short of their demand for an end to military rule. “Ganzoury is a puppet and I don’t trust SCAF to hand over power” says activist Salma Hegazy. “They will use these elections to give the impression of backing democracy whilst doing everything they can keep the influence and privileges.” Although there were calls from some quarters for an electoral boycott the high turn-out at the polls suggests that most Egyptians hope that elections will take the country closer to the establishment of a civilian government.
At one polling station off Tahrir Square voters had to negotiate burnt out cars, a pile of rubble outside a blacked shop front and an army check-point on their way to cast their ballot. Few seemed bothered as they strolled down Mansour Street passed armored personnel carriers and barricades coiled with razor wire and turned into Muhammad Mahmoud Street to vote. Both streets had been the scene of intense street battles less than a week before and although Sunday’s heavy rain had washed away the remnants of blood the acrid smell of fire still hung in the air. Undeterred, a steady flow of people turned out to vote at this polling station where queues were short and everything appeared to be going smoothly.
This was not the case in some other Cairo polling stations where lines of people began snaking around buildings even before doors had opened, the queues exacerbated by the late arrival of ballot papers and of the judges required to oversee the ballot. “I went to vote in Maadi twice yesterday but each time the lines were six blocks long so I didn’t bother” corporate trainer Anal Ibrahim told me on the second day of polling. “Instead I went this morning at 6.30am. The doors opened at 8 and it all went very smoothly.”
For others long queues were not the problem so as much as lack of information about what each of the parties stood for. “Waiting one hour or two hours to vote is not a problem for me” says Khaled El Adly a 28 year old mechanic standing in line in Shubra, a poor district of the city. “My problem is choosing who I will vote for.” Khaled, does not feel he has been given enough information about what each of the parties stands for. “No one has told us what they will do if they are in parliament. There were no meetings. No speeches. No papers.” Indeed Cairo did not feel like a city gripped by election fever. Apart from a few placards and banners there was little to suggest that this is a country on the engaged in an historic election.
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Although the Egyptian electoral authorities acknowledged some irregularities the vote has widely been welcomed as largely free and fair. “I waited for three-and-a-half hours at a polling station in Zamalek only to find my ballot had not been stamped and that my vote would not count” a man who works for a government department and chose not to give his name tells me. “I’m very disappointed of course but I do not think this was deliberate, just the result of bad organization.”
During the elections the crowd in Tahrir Square was much smaller than it had been on preceding days. There were still groups chanting and flags waving as well as clusters of people engaged in heated debate. One of the main discussions amongst activists in Tahrir centered on whether voting would lend legitimacy to an election that, no matter the result, will see SCAT retaining ultimate power. Other groups in Tahrir Square discussed the merits and composition of the proposed government of national salvation and the way forward for the Tahrir-appointed civil presidential council chaired by Abdel Fotouh, Mohamed el-Baradei and Hossam Essa.
Feelings ran high but despite differences of opinion all agreed that military rule must end and most agreed that the Tahrir Square occupation should continue until such time that it does. "To dismantle our tents before then would be to dismantle our hopes for a better future" Mourad Haikal told me. "Whatever happens in the elections the important thing is that Tahrir should stay."
This months’ return to Tahrir Square has not only succeeded in reawakening the spirit of defiance in Egypt and achieving some significant political gains but it has also cemented the position of Tahrir Square as a permanent practical and symbolic heart of the freedom movement in Egypt: a place to which people can always return and whose very existence will help shape Egyptian politics for generations to come. As prominent political activist Ahmed Abdel Maksood puts it, “the January revolution gave us the path. It showed us the way. We now have a weapon and that weapon is called Tahrir Square.”
There is nevertheless a long way to go. SCAF’s leaders, no doubt fearful of being held to account for past crimes, are not going to hand over power readily. Egypt’s leaderless revolution, so effective in overthrowing President Mubarek, has struggled to evolve a cohesive political leadership capable of challenging the organization and popularity of the Islamic parties at the ballot box. Ahmed Abel Maksood is confident that the FJP will win the most parliamentary seats but not gain an overall majority. "It is not because people believe in the principles they espouse. It is because Egyptians are a very religious people and the message the Brotherhood and Salafists are offering is ‘if you follow us, you are following God’.” Although they claim to believe in pluralism and democratic politics, Maksood fears that the Islamic parties are attempting to "kill democracy by democracy"; namely to attempt to win a parliamentary majority by democratic means and then amend the constitution to usher in an Islamic State. “The worst case scenario is that instead of democracy versus dictatorship the discourse becomes Islamism versus civil state” says political analyst Adam Taylor-Awny.
“We must be patient. This stage of the revolution will not be over in eighteen days” one young woman tells a group in Tahrir Square. Her nostrils are clogged with tissue to soak up the blood from a nose bleed caused by inhaling tear gas some days earlier. Listening is a man who lost an eye to police bird shot last Tuesday. Beside her a vendor sells gas masks and nearby donors give blood in the field hospital beside the Mosque. In the distance a young girl sits on her father’s shoulders chanting: “Be strong my country. Your labor maybe painful but the child you will bear will be called 'Freedom'”.