Turnout High in Egypt's Elections, but Questions About Transition Remain

CAIRO, EGYPT  —  

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 house 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.

Tags: arab spring, cairo, egypt, elections, hosni mubarak, mubarak, revolution, supreme council of armed forces, tahrir square

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous's full bio »