Egypt's Election Gets Underway

Egyptian eyeEgyptians took to the polls with a massive turnout this week, and few reported problems in the first round of elections since the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

This week's initial parliamentary elections will collect votes in the main city centers, like Cairo and Alexandria, as part of what will be a four-month voting process. From these elections, Egypt's first democratically-elected parliament will be created, which will be tasked with crafting a new constitution for the nation and laying the groundwork for a presidential election in 2012. The elections are occurring after a series of violent clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square with the interim military government. Protesters fear the military government is trying to manipulate the process to retain power. Some 40 people have been killed, and 2,000 injured.

Although some 50 political parties are fielding candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement banned under the secular authoritarian reign of Mubarak, is expected to make significant gains. Having survived decades of organizing underground, and propped up with the financial support of the country's black markets, the group is now the most organized political force in the nation. This has allowed it to devote resources over the past several months to preparing for the election, while newly-founded groups on the left and right have been forced to scramble to establish a political foundation. The Muslim Brotherhood's "Freedom and Justice Party" has a strong presence in rural areas of the country as well.

For Many Revolutionaries, Elections Lack Credibility

For many of the pro-democracy activists that took to Cairo's Tahrir Square and the country's main cities in the millions last spring, the elections lack credibility. The Egyptian revolution, which rose out of demands for economic justice and the elimination of the repression experienced under Mubarak's thirty-year rule, is still waiting to see progress on key demands voiced at Tahrir Square. A "maximum wage," for example, which the revolutionaries have pushed in order to ensure that their "one percent" contributes after profiting off of an economy which has been built on the backs of impoverished Egyptians, has been absent from the platforms of running parties.

"The elections will have no legitimacy," Sally Moore, one of the original organizers behind the Tahir protests told the New York Times. "It won't be a working Parliament. It will be a Parliament that people want to overthrow," she said. "It is a sideshow. But it is being portrayed as a main event, because people want to have some hope. They will end up disappointed."

The April 6th youth movement -- a faction of the movement responsible for elevating the spring revolution's visibility through the effective use of social media networks -- called for a boycott of the elections. The group is asking for the removal of the Military Council and wants the elections pushed back to a later date so opposition groups will have ample time to organize and gain recognition across the country.

"I am boycotting because I believe it is a circus," Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian blogger and activist, told Al Jazeera. "You cannot have clean elections while the police force which has not been purged is in charge of securing the ballot boxes."

Some liberal candidates even suspended their campaigns in response to the recent protests, but have since asked their supporters to vote to avoid giving the election away to the Islamist parties. Liberal candidates Asma Mahfouz, liberal blogger Mahmoud Salim and the intellectual Amr Hamzawy have suspended their campaigns, but remain on the ballot.

Voters were also asked through an online appeal to go to the polls dressed in black -- not only mourn the loss of those killed in clashes with the military last week -- but to symbolize that the elections may not be a liberating moment for the nation.

Some Still Hopeful

But for others, these elections are just one step in a long democratic process. In an op-ed in the New York Times published Monday, one of the revolution's online organizers, Wael Ghonim, said "Revolution is a process; its failure and success cannot me measured after only a few months, or even years... A mentality born of repression cannot be changed overnight." Ghonim had been held by Egyptian police during the early days of the revolution for his role in administering a Facebook page which played a critical role in the uprising.

Egyptian citizens residing in the United States were also allowed to vote in the election. Soleiman Moustafa told the Center for Media and Democracy that Egyptians in the United States, such as his mother, had to go through many hoops to get their votes included in the election, including short time frames between when voting materials were made available and when they were due to the Egyptian embassy, as well as confusion over whether a separate ID was needed.

When it comes to the outcome of the election, he has no idea what to expect. "If you would have asked me last January whether a revolution in Egypt was possible I would have told you 'no,'" he said. "All of my impressions of Egypt have been completely shattered in the past year. Anything can happen from these elections."

Harder to Produce Change

In a country of more than 81 million, its difficult to say whether or not the revolutionaries are representative of the will of the entire population, American freelance journalist Anna Day who reported from the scene as the Egyptian revolution unfolded last spring told the Center for Media and Democracy.

"But after this election, the revolutionaries will have lost a major opportunity," Day said. "There has been this open space over the past months since the revolution where people have been imagining the unimaginable. But once the machinery of this newly-formed government starts to click, it will become increasingly harder to produce change for the Egyptian people."