By Clive Bradley
Voting has started — in a process which will take four months — in Egyptian elections, the first since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February.
Polling stations in some areas had to stay open late to accommodate the huge numbers of Egyptians wanting to cast their vote.
This is despite a call for a boycott from some of the protestors who have reoccupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the centres of other cities. Does this reveal a gulf between the protestors and the mass of Egyptians?
A distance, but probably not a gulf. The protests have been spurred by continued repression meted out from the government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which removed Mubarak.
The military has not only kept hated “emergency” legislation in place, it has added new repressive laws. And in the months since February perhaps 12,000 activists have been arrested, most of them tried by military rather than civilian courts. The arrest and imprisonment of well-known bloggers was a particular spur to the recent resurgence in popular protest.
Over forty people have been killed by the army in the last week, and thousands injured.
A popular symbol of the new demonstrations in the eye-patch — representing those who have lost eyes due to rubber bullets and other weapons used to disperse protestors. But the mass demonstrations continue.
A notable absence from these protests as an organised force has been the Muslim Brotherhood, expected to emerge from the elections as the biggest single party. (That is to say, in the shape of their official Freedom and Justice Party). The Brotherhood has chosen to stay away from the protests for fear, they say, of inflaming the situation: their presence would make the protests a declaration of war on the government. For sure also their ears are closer to the ground in the suburbs and villages, where people have been anxious to vote.
One factor behind the popular liberal demand that the army “go now” — before, and indeed cancelling elections — and hand over power to a civilian government (the dominant version of this seems to be a government headed by Mohammed al Baradei) is fear of Muslim Brotherhood domination of the new parliament. A consistent liberal and leftist concern has been that the Brotherhood is better organised — it has had years to prepare itself, where secular and leftist groups have only had, for the most part, a few months.
Even more conservative “salafist” Islamist groups are expected to do well in the elections also (perhaps especially in the rural areas).
For sure, however, the anger with the military government expressed by the tens of thousands of activists in Tahrir Square and elsewhere is shared by the majority of Egyptians.
Reports suggest that although voters disagree with the boycott call — anxious to take part in what they see as the first real elections in their lives — they identify with the revolution and want to see it go further.
Military rule has done nothing to improve the situation of most Egyptians, struggling to earn a living in an impoverished country hard-hit by world recession and years of privatisation and government corruption.
The militant independent trade union movement which has emerged since the beginning of this year has begun to address these issues.
But for the moment the best organised political groups are the Brotherhood on the one hand and the moderate liberal secularists on the other — neither of which offer a way out of social and economic crisis for the mass of Egyptians.