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A confusing state of 'normal' troubles Egypt's elections

As Egypt embarks on its first free, multi-party parliamentary elections, February's elation over the departure of President Hosni Mubarak has been replaced by strain and ambivalence.

As Egypt embarks on its first free, multi-party parliamentary elections, February's elation over the departure of President Hosni Mubarak has been replaced by strain and ambivalence. Egyptians are divided between a desire to return to "normal", a dreary and predictable status quo, and to build a new political system, which will require a lot of hard work.

For now, "normal" reigns, thanks to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by 76-year old Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, a veteran of three wars and a Mubarak confidante. The Emergency Law, granting carte blanche to Egypt's security apparatus since 1981, remains in place.

Civilians continue to be arbitrarily detained, tried by military tribunal, imprisoned and tortured, sometimes to death such as the 24- year old Essam Atta, who was arrested in February when a street fight was being dispersed and summarily sentenced to two years in prison. Atta died in jail on October 20 due to internal bleeding, reportedly after water was forced through his mouth and anus via rubber tubes.

Press and media censorship is still problematic, especially critics of the military, whose economic interests - from land holdings to factories, construction firms and petrol stations - are vast yet largely opaque. The army's role in the deaths of 26 protesters on October 9, mostly Coptic Christians demanding an inquiry into the burning of an Aswan church, remains shrouded in denial and misinformation. Two independent TV stations broadcasting the protest were forced off the air.

The economic outlook is as bleak as ever with tourism down and workers in every sector striking for a living wage. Families had a hard time affording the traditional Eid Al Adha meal of meat, priced at the equivalent of $16 (Dh60) per kilogram. Some bought meat from Islamic groups that are running in the elections and are offering it at a lower, subsidised cost. Direct and indirect vote buying is a long-favoured campaign tool of both the former ruling National Democratic Party and Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidates.

Although the SCAF has a reputation for efficiency, it has been conspicuously inept in preparing Egypt for the polls. Dates have been repeatedly postponed; voting districts and polling procedures remain uncertain. Judicial supervision is planned, but international monitors are not invited.  A high court has ruled that expatriate Egyptians (as many as 10 million) have the right to vote from abroad; their annual remittances of about $10 billion contribute heavily to the economy. But the SCAF has not decided if the ruling is binding for the current elections and procedural issues remain unaddressed.

Talk of banning members of the former ruling National Democratic Party came to nothing; at least 300 are in the running. Despite confirming in March that the Mubarak-era law forbidding the formation of religious parties would be upheld, the SCAF has since allowed many to be licensed, including the political arm of the radical Gamaa Al Islamiyaa.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the most experienced of the current players, is fielding candidates for 60 to 70 per cent of the parliamentary seats, although it had initially promised it would contest no more than half. Religious slogans were banned and a ceiling placed on campaign spending but there are no means of enforcing these rules.

Over 15,000 individuals have presented themselves as candidates for the People's Assembly (the lower house with 498 seats) and the Shura Council (the higher house with 180), mostly as independents. Of the 55 parties now registered, 35 were formed in recent months. Several alliances forged between diverse parties have fallen apart. The election marathon, involving 45 million eligible voters, is scheduled to begin November 28 and end on March 11, but is subject to delays like everything else, including the trial of Mr Mubarak, now on hold.

While the number of Egyptians entering political life is encouraging, their plans for their constituencies are unclear.

One wonders how voters will distinguish their representatives in a few short weeks of campaigning, especially the 60 women fielded by the reactionary Salafist Nour party, who are entirely veiled in black.

As I write, there are hundreds of Egyptians marching through downtown Cairo chanting the same invective at 76-year old Field Marshall Tantawi as was directed at Mr Mubarak nine months ago. Given the recent clashes between the army and protesters; the Islamists' campaign to prevent former NDP members from gaining seats; the history of employing thugs to control polling stations; and the sectarian, economic and other tensions, Egyptians are looking forward less to an exercise in democracy than several perilous months that they hope to put safely behind them.


Maria Golia is the author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt

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