Will Vote Be Delayed? Violence Threatens Historic Egyptian Election

For the first time in their history, Egyptians are free to vote as they please -- but the riots in Cairo are throwing a spanner in the works. Will the country's election begin on Monday as planned? The military has apologized for the deaths of protestors on the streets, but still cannot contain the violence.

AP

Next Monday is supposed to be an historic day for Egypt. After decades of despotic rule under Hosni Mubarak that ended with the overwhelming and largely non-violent popular revolution in the spring, Egyptians will have the chance to vote freely for a new parliament for the first time. Even if the electoral process is complicated, the vote -- especially in the sprawling metropolis of Cairo -- should become the symbolic start of a new Egypt. Abroad, the election will be followed closely as one of the first big tests for the democratic movements in the Arab Spring countries.

But for six days now, there have been violent protests against the military council that assumed power after Mubarak's overthrow. The longer the riots continue, the more uncertainty they bring to the historic vote and with it the country's new beginning. On Wednesday evening, TV reports said that Interior Minister Mansour el-Issawi had suggested that the election might be postponed until calm could be restored to Cairo and other cities that have seen outbursts of violence. Although initially there was no official confirmation of the minister's words, it highlights the current chaos in Egypt. Months after the revolution, the country could yet see its new beginning shattered.

Given the situation, an election at this point in time -- at least in Cairo -- seems hardly feasible. Campaigning has more or less ground to a halt. Several parties, especially from the liberal camp, have suspended their campaigns recently in protest against the violence used by security forces against the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which can expect a good election result and appears for that reason to have stayed away from the protests so far, has discontinued its campaign advertising on short notice. So far, it is not clear what the parties might suggest as an alternative to Monday, but it is imaginable that a postponement would be for at least a few weeks.

Military Apologizes For Deaths

The military council, now loathed by the protesters in a similar way to Mubarak, is vehemently clinging on to the election date. At a hastily convened press conference on Thursday morning, a senior general said the protesters in Tahrir Square did not represent the whole population, and that the election would still take place on Monday as planned. A representative from the Election Commission added that the vote had been organized and that security forces were in place to protect ballet boxes. At the same time, the military council turned down all demands for an immediate withdrawal.

The de facto ruler of Egypt, former Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, had already announced sweeping concessions on Monday including moving the presidential election forward to much earlier than originally planned. Then on Wednesday, his supporters frantically tried to calm the situation with an exceptionally unusual admission: The military apologized on state television and on its Facebook page for the almost 40 deaths and thousands of injuries suffered by protesters across the country in recent days. It thus indirectly admitted that it carries at least part of the blame for the escalation of violence.

New Deaths Reported

But these actions by the military showed no signs of having had any effect on the streets. Despite a complicated ceasefire negotiated between demonstrators and security forces, further clashes occurred in the early hours of Thursday around the Interior Ministry near Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo. Doctors have reported new deaths. In the chaos of the protests, this has not been verified, although the indications are that it seems plausible. Acrid clouds of tear gas, howling ambulance sirens, the badly injured and bleeding being treated in makeshift clinics everywhere you look -- these images of violence have sadly become routine each night since last Saturday. The military was able to calm the situation briefly, but clashes broke out again a short time later.

Field Marshal Tantawi has in the last few days increasingly become the main figure of hate for demonstrators. Like his former boss Hosni Mubarak, his image is carried through the streets by protesters, adorned with a painted Hitler mustache or on an effigy with a noose around its neck. "Go away, go away." A chant once aimed at Mubarak is now directed at Tantawi -- and it resounds through the night, repeated over and over again by thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square. They are united in their belief that the generals have delayed the transition to democracy and civilian rule for too long. Many now doubt that the powerful military intends to relinquish power at all. Confidence in them has slumped dramatically. Instead of acting as guardian of the revolution, the army is now seen as a ruler from the old regime.

After the mass scenes of violence over the last few days, it is difficult to predict if and how the situation can be calmed. On Thursday morning, a truce was again in force, and it appeared initially to be holding. The military tried at the same time to restore confidence with other symbolic actions: Uniformed soldiers in trucks drove to Tahrir Square and tried to erect a field hospital for injured protesters. But the people there would no longer trust the soldiers. The military presence would only be acceptable if the makeshift hospitals employed independent doctors. "They want to spy on us," one protester insisted. "Yesterday they were firing on us."

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