CAIRO – Egyptians prepared to vote today in the first elections since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, a milestone many hoped would usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship. Instead, the polling is already marred by turmoil in the streets and the population is sharply polarized and confused over the nation’s direction.
Nine months after the popular uprising that pushed Mubarak out, protesters are back in the streets. This time, they are demanding that military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his council of generals step down immediately, accused of bungling the transition. Nine days of clashes that have left more than 40 dead and thousands wounded have heightened fears of violence at polling stations.
More critically, the political crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, which is expected to be dominated by Islamic parties. That could render the parliament that emerges irrelevant.
“We have no idea who we are going to vote for,” said Mustafa Attiya Ali, a 50-year-old barber in Cairo. “We don’t know any of the candidates, but I and my friends will get together tonight and decide who to vote for.”
Egypt’s military rulers decided to forge ahead with the elections despite the new wave of unrest, scenes starkly reminiscent of the first uprising. On Sunday night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the original uprising, a relatively small crowd of a few thousand braved a rare rainstorm to keep the round-the-clock protests going.
Tantawi and other generals have pledged to ensure a clean election and troops and police began deploying on Sunday evening to protect thousands of polling centers. Foreign groups sent missions to witness the vote, but officially the military banned international election observers.
“I have serious concerns about the safety of the ballot boxes staying overnight uncounted at the polling centers,” said Hassan Issa, an oil engineer from Alexandria. “They will definitely be rigged,” he predicted.
Tantawi responded to the calls for him to leave by digging in Sunday, refusing to surrender power and issuing stern threats of “extremely grave” consequences if the unrest does not end.
“Egypt is at a crossroads – either we succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that,” warned Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years. He accused foreign powers he did not name of meddling in Egypt’s affairs, echoing Mubarak’s rhetoric in his final days of power.
“We will not allow a small minority of people who don’t understand to harm Egypt’s stability,” he said, alluding to the protesters in Tahrir.