After days of violent protests, Egypt kicks off elections

Parliamentary balloting begins in start of election process that could take months; many Egyptians concerned over whether voting will be free, fair and nonviolent.

Egyptian soldier guards as Egyptians line up to vote 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Egyptian soldier guards as Egyptians line up to vote 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Egypt began its first free parliamentary elections in decades on Monday, a day after protesters in Cairo continued their week-long rally against the military council and its hand-picked choice of prime minister.
The optimism that accompanied president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February has given way to trepidation, as more than 42 people have been killed and 2,000 wounded in clashes with security forces since Saturday. Many Egyptians are also concerned over whether voting will be free, fair and nonviolent.
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The parliamentary ballot that began on Monday is the start of an election process that could take months.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has promised presidential elections and a transfer to civilian rule by July 1. But demonstrators in Tahrir Square – the center of the anti-Mubarak revolt – want the council to make way for a civilian interim administration immediately. Activists called for a mass rally to pile pressure on the generals, and by mid-afternoon there were thousands in the square.
The outgoing cabinet angered many Egyptians by floating proposals that would have given the army sweeping national security powers and protected it from civilian scrutiny. Last week the entire cabinet bowed to popular pressure and quit, but protesters are unhappy with the choice of 78-year-old Kamal Ganzouri to form its replacement.
Bassam Sharaf, among the protesters outside parliament, said the objection to Ganzouri was not his age, but the policies he pursued as prime minister under Mubarak from 1996 to 1999.
“Two-thirds of the ministers that Ganzouri appointed in his day are now in Tora prison,” he said, referring to Mubarak-era officials accused of corruption and other offenses who were put on trial after the uprising that swept Mubarak from power.
The generals have received tacit support from Islamist parties – chief among them the Muslim Brotherhood – eager that nothing should disrupt voting in the first of three rounds of an election in which they expect to do well.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the council, said the army would ensure security at the polling booths.
“We are at a crossroads.
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There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt toward safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow,” he declared.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Futuh, an Islamist presidential candidate who opposes military rule, said, “The nation is larger than Field Marshal Tantawi and Lt.- Gen. Sami Enan and the military council. A government with revolutionary leadership must be formed to meet the demands of Tahrir Square.”
State television quoted Tantawi as saying the army’s role of protecting the nation would be unchanged in the new constitution.
Some protesters favor Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, who has offered to drop his campaign for the presidency and to lead a government of national unity.
ElBaradei is respected among pro-democracy campaigners and has a high international profile, but many Egyptians view him as out of touch because he spent much of his career abroad.
Mohamed Badie, leader of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which hopes the election will catapult it into a strong place in mainstream politics, offered Ganzouri qualified support, depending on the powers and makeup of his cabinet.
He suggested conspiratorial hands were behind the unrest.
“There are powers inside and outside Egypt that don’t want stability for Egypt or development, and this is something that is being pushed and paid for,” Badie said late on Saturday.
Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya – which led an armed insurgency against Mubarak during Ganzouri’s government in the 1990s and now says it has renounced violence – said it would not join the protesters in Tahrir, criticizing them for trying to “force a certain prime minister on Egypt,” an apparent reference to ElBaradei.
The Salafi Islamist Nour Party said it would meet Ganzouri in the next few days to propose names for his cabinet.
The complex, drawn-out election to parliament’s lower house concludes in early January.
Voting for the upper house and the presidency will follow before the end of June. A confusing array of candidates and parties, and fears of bullying, bribery and violence at polling stations, poise voters a daunting challenge.
Protesters appear split over the timing of the election, and some do not trust the military to ensure a free vote. Others say the poll should not be a casualty of the campaign against military rule.
“This is one thing, that is something else. Everyone will be in the polling stations come Monday,” said Abdul Aal Diab, a 46-year-old state employee protesting in Tahrir.
“Why are you so sure?” interrupted Mustafa Essam, 27. “I won’t go. I have no faith in anyone.”