Egypt's elections have begun amid high turnout and public optimism. But Tahrir Square's protesters are promising to keep the pressure on the country's military rulers.
The high turnout in the first round of Egypt's elections showed a public embracing the chance to appoint their own representatives after years of sham elections. But it should not be read as widespread acceptance of the military’s monopoly of power, say those who support ongoing protests against military rule.
“I think that the more people that came to vote it means the more people want the military gone,” says Amira Mikhail, an activist who participates in Tahrir protests and voted yesterday. “People are saying we want our own government, we want our own representation, so we're asking you to leave.”
The elections held yesterday and today are the first in a three-round process to elect a new lower house of parliament after this year's uprising ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. They come as frustration has grown with the military leaders who took over from Mubarak, who have mismanaged a difficult transition, continued much of Mubarak’s repression, and delayed the timeline for transferring power to civilian rule.
That frustration boiled over in Cairo's Tahrir Square last week and spread as a broad cross-section of Egyptian society joined protests against military rule, threatening to derail elections. The military has sought to discredit such protesters as a minority in a country of 85 million. In a news conference last week, a member of the ruling military council, Maj. General Mukhtar El Mallah, said, “People in Tahrir do not represent the Egyptian people.”
But while many Egyptians prioritize stability, those willing to protest – even in the face of violence by security forces – say all they need is a critical mass.
“Even during the 18 days [of protest against Mubarak], not all 85 million Egyptians were supporting what was happening in the street,” says Ramy Raoof, online media officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who goes to Tahrir every day after work. Yet enough came out that Mubarak was forced from power. Since then, displays of strength on the street have forced concessions from the military rulers as well.
“Going for demonstrations and protests and going to the elections – there is no contradiction between them,” says Mr. Raoof. “Both are to end the military system and SCAF period and another step toward a stable democratic country. We have two paths – peaceful protests and elections.”
While many Egyptians may have been frustrated with military rulers, what sparked last week's massive demonstrations was brutality by security forces. Such behavior was also a driving factor behind the uprising against Mubarak, whose police tortured and abused citizens with impunity. Repeated police and military violence against protesters over the summer, culminating on Oct. 9, when security forces killed 27, and last week, when they killed more than 40 people across the country over five days, motivated Egyptians to take to the streets by the tens of thousands once more.
Many Egyptians will likely be willing to give the new parliament a chance, and street protests could die down in the meantime. But it is yet unclear how much power the parliament will have. The military council has the final say in legislation, appointing a cabinet, and made moves recently toward having a larger role in the creation of a committee to write the constitution, which was supposed to be the responsibility of the new parliament. If the legislative body is seen as powerless, another crackdown might easily ignite renewed anger and protests.