No joy in Egypt as voters head to first post-Mubarak elections

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 27, 2011 

CAIRO — Millions of Egyptians will vote Monday in the first election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but the mood is somber rather than celebratory in a country that's more divided and politically unstable than at any time in recent memory.

Analysts say the haphazard and likely violent parliamentary polls are the culmination of nearly 10 months of "colossal mismanagement" by Egypt's ruling military council, whose failure to push through real democratic reforms leaves the Arab world's most populous nation with an unfinished revolution. The disarray is a warning to other Middle Eastern countries in transition from authoritarian rule, analysts say.

Behind the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' insistence on holding elections in a country that's hardly ready — whether by security, political or logistical benchmarks — is a fight for the preservation of decades of military dominance over Egypt's political and economic life.

Nearly all of the nation's disparate revolutionary factions now describe the military as the biggest stumbling block to democratic civilian rule. And yet, with elections proceeding and the generals trotting out another mostly toothless interim Cabinet, it was unclear how the widening chasm between the generals and the revolutionaries could be bridged.

"They're still thinking in the same paradigm of Mubarak authoritarianism, it's all just the same," said Heba Morayef, an Egyptian researcher for Human Rights Watch and an outspoken critic of the council. "There is no easy exit strategy, no easy fix at all."

Failing to hold elections on time would've wrecked the electoral road map created by the council and forced the military to start anew, presumably with more input from outside players and new restrictions on the virtually unchecked power the military council has enjoyed since taking control after Mubarak's resignation last winter.

The political elite's preoccupation with voting vs. boycotting, or liberals vs. Islamists, is a sideshow, some political scientists argued. Under the current conditions, the incoming parliament will have little say over forming a Cabinet or picking the drafters of a new constitution.

The military council's inner workings as well as its vast and diverse financial portfolio — huge factories, farms and development projects — would remain hidden from the public. A cornerstone of the ruling generals' budget is $1.3 billion in annual aid from the United States.

"They're pushing for elections because they want to save themselves, but the elections themselves don't mean anything," said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who's written extensively on the Egyptian military.

"You cannot have a military that runs a massive economy without any oversight and talk about democracy," he said.

Chilly rains washed over the grimy streets of Cairo on Sunday night, only adding to the collective gloom expressed by many of Egypt's 50 million eligible voters, even those who planned to cast ballots.

Online, Egyptians turned to their signature coping mechanism — humor — with dark jokes spread via Twitter about how confusing the voting process was. They cracked that even the capital's notoriously horrendous traffic jams were easier to navigate.

The bad weather didn't budge protesters in downtown's Tahrir Square, the cradle of the revolution. They continued a sit-in to demand the military immediately hand over power to a civilian caretaker government. Most of them were boycotting elections, though they knew that would only boost the Muslim Brotherhood's chances of ushering in an Islamist-dominated parliament.

The Brotherhood, the country's best-organized political force, is locked in an uneasy alliance with the military council based on mutual short-term goal of timely elections. Few expect the partnership, whether de facto or through a reported deal, to last much longer than the end of the staggered parliamentary polls in March.

Already, there are signs of a breakdown, with the Brotherhood feeling the heat from its non-Islamist erstwhile comrades in the revolution, who now accuse the group of selling out by refusing to formally support a rejuvenated uprising that began nine days ago. Nearly 40 people died and at least 2,700 were wounded in clashes between protesters and security forces over the right to occupy the square, as well as protest sites in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest population center, and other cities.

The renewed revolution almost succeeded in delaying the elections, but the council, backed by the influential Brotherhood, won in the 11th hour. Their resistance to a delay was couched in references to a so-called "silent majority" of Egyptians who are fed up with disruptive demonstrations and still trust the military to be an agent of change.

Dalia Mogahed, director and senior analyst at the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, said there's truth to that argument. As of September, the polling house found, the vast majority of Egyptians were opposed to postponing the vote and still viewed the military as the best institution for managing the transition. Surveys showed that revolutionary ideals such as human rights and democratic governance were trumped by the daily hardships endured by most Egyptians.

"The top concerns are lack of money, high, high inflation, a lack of employment and the struggle to find food," Mogahed said. "Nothing having to do with worrying about (the council) or the political maneuverings.

"The majority don't yet believe that there's a threat to a transition to a democratic model," she continued. "They think it's coming."

Only hours away from the vote, the official election website crashed, politicians still campaigned in violation of electoral law, and dozens of foreign journalists had yet to receive credentials allowing them access to polling stations. Reports abounded of blocked-off polling sites, and international monitors were quoted as complaining about the lack of secure storage for ballot boxes.

The election would go on, but whether the results would be considered legitimate was another matter.

"It will depend on what results come out of such elections," said Mohamed Farahat, a political analyst in Cairo. "If the civil powers get a majority in this parliament, there will be little opposition to its legitimacy or performance, but if we find a majority of the former (ruling party) or Islamists, no one will accept such government or parliament."

Neighborhood patrols and Islamist groups mobilized to protect polling stations in the absence of police, who melted away after Mubarak's ouster, and the inability of the military to secure a country of some 85 million with an army of 500,000.

Rumors flew that a candidate who was stabbed last week had died from his wounds. The report couldn't be confirmed, but the news spread quickly anyway, worsening fears of a violent Election Day. Animosity runs higher than ever between supporters of the old guard and the youth-led revolutionaries.

"We have two Egypts now — Egypt in Tahrir Square with noble intentions and goals, and the other Egypt, the people getting ready to hijack the power," said Gamal Zayda, managing editor of Egypt's largest newspaper, the state-backed Al Ahram.

The council's original sin, Zayda said, was the failure to install a caretaker government with real power immediately after Mubarak's ouster, and to place a new constitution ahead of elections on the long to-do list for rebuilding Egypt.

"They didn't do it," Zayda said, with sadness apparent in his voice. "They just wanted to do it all themselves. We had a very bad road map and since then, Egypt's been tumbling."

At the latest anti-military demonstration in the square this weekend, Hana Abdel Fattah, 28, and Ahmed Mukhtar, 27, wondered aloud how they could've been so naive as to join the throngs who chanted, "the people and the Army are one hand" in celebration of the military's decision in February to push out Mubarak rather than confront protesters with force.

Now, both call for immediate civilian rule, adding their voices to the cleverly rhymed chants demanding the council's downfall. So numerous were the generals' missteps, neither protester could pinpoint exactly when they lost faith in the generals they once regarded as saviors of the revolution.

"It was when they took our sister protesters and brought them for forced virginity tests," Abdel Fattah said.

"Yes, or when they gave three years in prison to those soldiers, the defectors, who came down and joined us in the square," Mukhtar said.

"No, no, it was when they killed those 28 Copts at the TV building, when they ran over them with those armored vehicles," Abdel Fattah said.

"Well, they were also really slow to start the Mubarak trial," Mukhtar mused.

"Or even from the beginning, when they said they'd transfer power in six months," Abdel Fattah said. "It's been 10 months now, and nothing has changed."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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