Tahrir protesters bitter over Egypt's successful first vote

CAIRO — The irony of Egypt's successful parliamentary vote is this: With every vote cast, chances dimmed for Tahrir Square protesters' demand for immediate civilian rule.

The unexpectedly high turnout and relatively smooth balloting that characterized the two days of voting that ended Tuesday illustrated what surveys had shown for months: The majority of Egyptians prefer speedy elections to disruptive protests in the military-run transitional period.

The winners of the first round of voting won't be known until Wednesday at the earliest. But the losers were obvious, as hundreds of thousands of voters turned out for the second day of voting in the staggered parliamentary elections: The Tahrir diehards, who stewed under their flimsy tents and plastic tarps. Their numbers had dwindled, with stalwart activists replaced by street peddlers and bored young bullies. Female revolutionaries complained that they no longer felt safe at the camp.

The tension exploded after dark in new clashes that left 59 people wounded, according to the Health Ministry. Officials said nine were injured in a battle that erupted when protesters tried to force out street vendors who'd overtaken the square to sell roasted corn, revolution souvenirs, cotton candy and sugary tea. The peddlers returned with backup, including thugs with Molotov cocktails, stones and shotguns. The clashes raged for hours before dissipating, according to live TV reports from the square.

In a sign that protesters still had supporters in high places, presidential candidate and Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei tweeted his disdain for the latest violence in the square: "Thugs attack protesters in Tahrir. Regime that can't protect its citizens is regime that failed its people," he wrote on his official Twitter account.

The public's tacit endorsement of the ruling generals — the archenemies of the Tahrir camp — forced the dejected protesters to admit that their revolution has faltered.

"People don't understand that we are protesting for the whole country, for those who were killed by both army and police forces last week," lamented Shimaa Salah, 27. "How can I vote in elections run by those who killed us less than 10 days ago?"

Salah prepared to spend her 10th night in the square Tuesday, along with hundreds of other hardcore protesters who reject the elections organized by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military council that has ruled Egypt since a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak out last winter. A re-energized revolt against the council's broad powers, spurred by a security force attack on a sit-in Nov. 19, tried but ultimately failed to push aside the generals in favor of civilian interim leaders.

The TV cameras that once broadcast their uprising live to the world were now set up outside busy polling stations. State media featured wall-to-wall, triumphant coverage of the first election since Mubarak's ouster, portraying the uneventful two days of voting as proof that the council could secure the nation. A timely, successful election is crucial for the generals, whose transitional plans hinge on near-absolute power for their council.

"It is true that people are fed up with the continuing strike on Tahrir Square, and this is what the state media accomplished by spreading rumors that we are paid and serving foreign hands," said Salah, who belongs to the Socialist Youth Coalition.

The protesters in Tahrir Square called the election a sham and the people who participated dupes. A few of them said they'd voted, if only to spoil their ballots in protest or to help liberal politicians against Islamist opponents. But not one believed a new parliament would wield any real authority while answering to the council.

The elections, they said, were useful only in giving legitimacy to an institution whose mission appears to be preserving the old order and keeping Islamists at bay.

"The only thing (the new parliament) will do is to choose a panel to write the constitution. Other than that, they will be as useless as their fancy chairs," said Tamer el Masry, 34, who briefly left the square Tuesday to vote for liberal candidates.

Masry said his vote wasn't so much for liberals as against the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party sat out the latest uprising to focus single-mindedly on an electoral sweep that the Islamist group had dreamed of for decades. The Brotherhood's backing of the council's timetable was vital to the generals' ability to sidestep the latest, and most serious, challenge to their rule.

"The Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the police forces that killed us and called for elections to continue," Masry said bitterly.

Huge banners hung throughout the square, bearing photos of protesters killed in the latest wave of confrontations. At least 40 people died and more than 3,000 were wounded in a week of ceaseless battles between protesters and security forces, which fired potent tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators.

On Tuesday, dozens of lawyers joined the sit-in and began drafting documents in preparation for legal action against authorities on behalf of injured protesters and the families of those who were killed. The protesters said it was important to show that the leaders now celebrating their historic vote are the same who ordered the killings of protesters only weeks ago.

"We are here collecting testimonies and documenting cases of injured protesters to show the world that our government that just held elections has blood on its hands," said Tharwat Kamel, 29, who boycotted the polls.

"It's not about last week," Kamel said, referring to the violence. "We've been demanding justice and equality since Jan. 25. We toppled Mubarak and thought that the military would help us, but it turned out to be a carbon copy of the former regime."

(Sabry is a special correspondent. Hannah Allam in Cairo contributed.)


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