On November 28th and 29th, 2011 Egypt witnessed the first stage of parliamentary elections. 17 million voters, representing 9 key governorates, were queuing several hundred yards in front of the poll stations in Cairo, Alexandria, Fayoum, Kafr El Sheikh, Dameitta, Asyout, Port Said,Luxor and The Red Sea region to cast their vote for members of parliament.
Most Egyptians were first time voters. In the past – before the January 25,20ll revolution, a great majority of Egyptians were reluctant to participate in Elections as they believed that nearly every election was rigged, whether by bribery, ballot box stuffing or intimidation by police at the polls.
In front of one of the doors of the poll station in Zamalek-an island in down town Cairo, I stood in an endless queue with hundreds of women of different age groups, and almost all of us were first time voters. The main streets in Zamalek were blanketed with the election posters. This historical poll could be a chance to build a new democratic Egypt. Ahmed Taha, a young 20 years old student said, “I hope this is a fair election, I am proud to vote for my country.”
The elections were in danger last week as unrest spread all over Egypt, leading to the interim government resignation. Demonstrators at Tahrir square announced that they are going to boycott the elections. However, almost half of the Tahrir demonstrators voted in nearby poll stations and then returned back to Tahrir to camp. This proves how all Egyptians are keen upon the elections as they haven’t been able to truly vote for decades and they want to exercise that right now.
Elections in Egypt are considered a challenge. The public is voting for 498 seats in the people’s assembly, with 10 seats other seat appointed by authorities. Political parties have a narrow, ill defined mandate to select drafters of a new constitution. All the real power- to select a prime minister, name a cabinet and control the budget- will remain with the ruling military council, which isn’t scheduled to step aside until presidential elections end of June 2012. An unclear atmosphere is felt all over the country as predictions are in favour of Islamist parties: the Muslem Brotherhood and Salafi parties. This new Islamist lobby is considered as a threat to Egyptian liberals and feminists. Some Egyptian women activists complain by saying that they cannot even compare themselves to Saudi women who won the right to run as candidates in local elections, while they – Egyptian women- have been voting since 1956!
Interestingly, there was a very high number of women participating, as if they all agreed on a motto, “if we (Women) are not ruling , we are voting.” Gamila Ismail, an activist, politician and a T.V. announcer who lost in the elections of 2010 and is back as part of coalition of liberals, admits that a female candidate faces problems such as social prejudice yet she believes in women strength and their rights in education and freedom of expression.
Egyptian women activists are shelving their dreams of presidency or new progressive laws since women’s rights are seen as part of a former corrupt regime. Perhaps the concerns of women’s right was the secret behind their unprecedented interest to vote. Women in the country side areas said, “When we felt that our voice count, we came to vote, even if we have to stay in the streets for hours and hours”.
So far, the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood has been to prove to the Egyptian electorate that they are not the “extremists and arm-choppers,” people believe they are, and that since they are in direct contact with people, they provide essential social services such as mobile clinics and free after school tutoring. Some Liberal parties such as Ghad (Tomorrow ) founded by Ayman Nour , joined the Muslem Brotherhood in a coalition.
The list of coalitions is very confusing for ordinary Egyptian voters as the different vying parties programs are constantly changing.
Egypt’s governmental challenges will not stop with the elections. The next step is to clarify the function and power of the new parliament. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether the new parliament will be able to resolve the stand off with the military forces over civilian control of the armed forces, and the role of parliament.
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