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Egypt worried as parliament dissolved, elections begin

Many voters are stuck between a rock and a hard place as they go to the polls today.

A ballot box at a polling centre in Cairo.
A ballot box at a polling centre in Cairo.
Image: Nasser Nasser/AP/Press Association Images

FACED WITH A choice between Hosni Mubarak’s ex-prime minister and an Islamist candidate, Egyptians entered their latest round of elections in an atmosphere of suspicion, resignation and worry, voting in a presidential runoff that will mean the difference between installing a remnant of the old regime and bringing more Islam into government.

The race between Ahmed Shafiq, a career air force officer like Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, a US-trained engineer, has deeply divided the country, 16 months after a stunning uprising by millions forced the authoritarian Mubarak to step down after 29 years in office.

The two-day vote is taking place under the shadow of political dramas over the past week that effectively mean the military generals who took power after Mubarak’s ouster will continue to rule despite promises to hand over authority to the elected president by 1 July. The generals took over legislative powers after Egypt’s highest court on Thursday ordered the dissolution of the parliament elected just six months ago, and the military made a de facto declaration of martial law.

Earlier today, the military told parliament it had been dissolved and banned its member from entering the house. After the notice was handed down, the Muslim Brotherhood accused Egypt’s military of seeking to monopolise power by disbanding the Islamist-dominated parliament.

Today, few voters have  showed a sense of celebration visible in previous votes. The prevailing mood was one of deep anxiety over the future – whether bitterness that their “revolution” had stalled, fears that whoever wins protests will erupt, or deep suspicion that the political system was being manipulated. Moreover, there was a sense of voting fatigue. Egyptians have gone to the polls multiple times since Mubarak’s fall on  11 February 2011 – a referendum early last year, then three months of multi-round parliamentary elections that began in November, and the first round of presidential elections last month.

“People are depressed, no one is happy after we returned to square one,” Abu Bakr Said, a lawyer and a Morsi supporter, said referring to Thursday’s court ruling, which wiped out the only elected body in the country.

“We have no confidence now in any election and I know that a second revolution is coming,” he said as he waited in line outside a Cairo polling center.

Some said they were voting against a candidate as much as for a favourite. Anti-Shafiq voters said they wanted to stop a figure they fear will perpetuate Mubarak’s regime; anti-Morsi voters feared he would hand the country over to Brotherhood domination to turn it into an Islamic state. With the fear of new authoritarianism in the future, some said they were choosing whoever they believed would be easiest to eventually force out.

There are also many fears that this vote will be tampered with but there were no immediate reports of significant violations at the polls, which are being monitored by several international and local observer groups. The suspicion expressed by many underscored a widespread belief that the ruling military wants to ensure a win by the president of its choosing. The military has said it does not back either candidate.

The pen rumour

Announcements by Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, in charge of police, only heightened the sense of paranoia and uncertainty. He told reporters that security agencies learned of a plot to carry out attacks on “vital installations” by individuals disguised as police or military. He also said that pens with ink that disappears after 30 minutes were being distributed to voters outside polling stations to use in marking their ballots. He didn’t elaborate on who was passing them out or why.

The “pen” rumour spread quickly. At a polling center in the Cairo district of Shubra el-Kheima, the judge monitoring the ballots said the report was fake but that many in line now feared their vote would vanish. One woman wanted to take her ballot outside to wait to ensure her checkmark didn’t disappear, said the judge, Mohammed el-Minshawi.

The balloting will produce Egypt’s first president since the ouster of Mubarak, now serving a life sentence for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising that toppled his regime.

The winner will be only the fifth president since the monarchy was overthrown nearly 60 years ago.

The election is supposed to be the last stop in a turbulent transition overseen by the military generals. But even if they nominally hand over some powers to the winner, they will still hold the upper hand over the next president. The generals are likely to issue an interim constitutional declaration defining the president’s powers, they will hold legislative powers, and they will likely appoint an assembly to write the permanent constitution.

Also last week, the military-appointed government gave military police and intelligence agents the right to arrest civilians for a host of suspected crimes. Many saw the move as a de facto declaration of martial law.

Already, the generals have been blamed for mismanaging the transition and they stand accused of killing protesters, torturing detainees and hauling at least 12,000 civilians before military courts since January last year.

-Additional reporting by (c) AFP, 2012

Egypt: Supreme Court’s call for parliament dissolution sparks outcry>

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