By Ariel Stulberg
On Monday, November 28, Egyptians began voting for a new parliament in Egypt’s first election since massive protests toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. For the first time in Egypt’s history, expatriates were able to vote as well.
Egypt has been among the most dramatic stories of the Arab Spring. One of the lynchpin countries of the Middle East, with longtime ties to the West, Egypt had its authoritarian system shocked to its core in a wave of non-violent popular demonstration beginning in January 2011. At that time, Egypt’s military establishment, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), emerged as heroes to the revolution when they sided with demonstrators or ultimately refused to defend the regime.
As the elections have approached, however, SCAF seems to have lost much of its popularity, as increasing numbers of protesters have challenged its rule, often violently, in Cairo’s streets. The council had earlier issued a series of edicts widely interpreted as attempts to consolidate the military’s power at the expense of the new civilian authority. In the last week, crowds have once again battled security forces around Tahrir Square demanding concessions from what is now seen as an irredeemably corrupt regime, an extension of Mubarak’s autocracy.
Hossam Mansour and Ahmed Helal, two SIPA students from Egypt, expressed excitement at being able to contribute to Egypt’s future, but are wary of the process. “I think it’s going to be a fiasco,” declared Helal, a first-year Master of Public Administration student focusing on Economic and Political Development, a few days before the election. “It’s going to be rigged for sure.” This opinion, he said, is based on his more general belief that the revolution had not yet really come to fruition. “The Mubarak regime is still alive and well,” he insisted. “It’s naive to expect that an eighteen-day uprising, toppling the dictatorship, is going to change the face of the country.”
Mansour, an activist who comes from a family of political exiles, echoes Helal’s sentiments. “The military wanted to sacrifice Mubarak to save the regime.” Mansour believes that Egypt lacks the institutions to transition quickly to democracy. While happy that Egyptians are voting in “their first un-fabricated election in years,” he remains conflicted. Mansour supports the plan of liberal presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei to appoint a transitional “government of national salvation” to take executive power from SCAF immediately, rather than having elections under the current circumstances.
Mansour can’t register to vote because of his asylum status, but Helal has done so. Despite his enthusiasm, Helal was initially undecided. He feels that no candidate or party clearly represents his views.
“I know who I don’t want to vote for,” he explained prior to casting his ballot, referring to Islamist forces like the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Mansour feels the same way. He said he doesn’t support any particular party in the election because he feels they are still in the process of forming and introducing themselves. Both students lament this fragmentation among the liberals and worry it bodes well for the better organized conservative parties.
Mansour said his Egyptian-American friends described the actual voting process on election day as a frustrating bureaucratic hassle. Helal’s experience was a lot better, noting the staff was helpful. The ballots indicated each candidate’s party affiliation with a drawing, “like a basketball or a candlestick.” Overall, it was “a smooth process,” said Helal. “Quite well organized.”
“Like for any Egyptian voting in a free election for the first time in the country’s history, it was a special moment.”
Ariel Stulberg is a first-year Master of International Affairs student. The article first appeared in the December 6 issue of Communiqué.