Official campaigning yesterday began for parliamentary elections in Egypt, Arab world¿s most populous nation. The four months of campaigning and voting would be the biggest test of the democracies being born from the Arab Spring.
Egyptian election campaigns kick off
CAIRO // Opponents of Islamists declared a "life and death" battle for Egypt's future yesterday as official campaigning began for parliamentary elections in the Arab world's most populous nation.
The four months of campaigning and voting would be the biggest test of the democracies being born from the Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East, following successful polls in Tunisia.
The winner could gain the first popular mandate in modern Egyptian history after decades of authoritarian rule and secure a decisive role in drafting a new constitution - the subject of bitter power struggles between Islamists, liberals and the army.
A popular uprising swept the president, Hosni Mubarak, from power, to be replaced by an interim military government.
But many Egyptians now fear their country could be falling behind its neighbours, with growing tensions about the generals' plans to hold power well into next year, rising unemployment and sectarian clashes that have killed scores.
"The battle for parliament is a life or death one. It isn't an electoral battle but a battle for Egypt and history," said Basel Adel of the Free Egyptians, a secular party funded partly by Christian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
Days before the official campaign kicked off, Free Egyptians filled Cairo's streets with posters offering "a party for all Egyptians," playing on fears Islamists would sow strife in a country where about 10 per cent of the population was Christian.
The Muslim Brotherhood, excluded from politics for decades under Mr Mubarak, has been seeking mainstream support.
Its Freedom and Justice party put an advert in the main state newspaper, Al Ahram, yesterday, offering "a better tomorrow."
It showed a smiling middle-aged man with his wife and daughter, both wearing headscarves.
Some Islamist parties were pushing morality as the answer to Egypt's woes.
Newspaper Al Masry Al Youm recently showed members of the Salafist Al Nour party in Alexandria wrapping a statue featuring bare-breasted mermaids in sheets, ropes and banners.
After months of bickering about the electoral framework, the challenge would be to win the votes of an electorate that was largely unknown and untested.
"All of these parties are trying to cast as wide a net as possible," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Nobody is sure where the Egyptian electorate its. They are going fishing in waters they really don't know."
A September survey of 2,400 voters by the Egyptian Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies found that of the 62 per cent who had made a decision, 39 per cent would support Freedom and Justice, 20 per cent would support the centrist Wafd Party and 6.8 per cent would back Al Nour.
But 38 per cent of those polled were undecided.
Another little understood group not yet polled was Egypt's eight million citizens abroad, who have been given a vote for the first time.
Bruce Rutherford, a professor at Colgate University in New York, said the major change after the revolution was the activation of voters in areas previously ignored.
"We know very little about their political views," he said. "The assumption is that in the countryside, there is a more traditional view of Islam and they may gravitate toward a more Salafist view.
"But their vote also may go the way of their village leaders and tribal connections.
"The simple answer is that the new political actor in Egypt is the less educated, traditional, conservative part of the society."
Despite the Al Ahram poll showing 52 per cent of respondents said economic issues were the most important concerns facing the government, the debate has not yielded major policy differences on how to jump-start the economy.
"No one has come up with specific solutions to the country's problems," said Mahmoud Farouk, founder of the Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth. "I don't believe Egypt is worse after the revolution but it's not better."
Mr Farouk said the parties had not engaged a deep discussion about the country's future.
"Islamists want a more Islamic government but nobody is telling us what this would look like, what would be different," he said.
Until now, debate had focused on the framework of the elections and a timeline for the transition from military to civilian rule.
This, in part, reflected the tensions with the interim government controlled by the highest military body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Under the final arrangement, a presidential election may not yield a new civilian head of government until well into 2012, if not 2013.
After the People's Assembly elections in three stages from November 28 to January 3, voting for the Shura council, the upper house, would begin on January 29.
Presidential elections could start next summer but some fear they would not begin until the autumn.
The military council has also been blamed for violence in which up to 27 people died during a protest by Coptic Christians last month, and has been criticised for extending a harsh emergency law until next year.
Two major political blocs have formed - the Democratic Alliance and The Egypt Bloc. But they have made scant progress in actually defining their differences.
Both groups have been a mix of Islamist and secular parties but departures from the Democratic Alliance are leaving it with an Islamist majority.
Egypt could become more polarised if the blocs focus on identity, rather than policy, Ms Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment said.
"This is the first truly competitive election Egypt has had since before the days of Nasser," she said. "Nobody knows what to expect."
* Additional reporting by Reuters