I spent ten days or so in Cairo at the start of this month. Here’s the first of a few articles I wrote while I was there, a news piece on the elections for the Scotsman.
EGYPT’S ultra-conservative Islamist party plans to push for a stricter religious code after claiming strong gains in the first round of elections, a spokesman said last night.
Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists were set to take most seats in the first round of Egypt’s first parliamentary vote since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.
The head of Egypt’s electoral commission said 62 per cent of eligible voters turned out for the first round of elections to parliament.
Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim called the number “the highest since the time of pharaohs”.
More than 13 million people voted in Monday and Tuesday’s ballot across nine Egyptian provinces.
The first round voting will determine around 30 per cent of the 498 seats in the parliament’s lower house. Two more rounds, ending in January, will cover Egypt’s other 18 provinces.
Crucially, the new parliament will select a 100-member panel to draft Egypt’s new constitution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which took control of the country after Mubarak was toppled, has said it will choose 80 of those members.
Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the hardline Salafist al-Nour Party – inspired by the Wahhabi sect which Osama bin Laden belonged to – have recently sought to reassure moderate Muslims and Egyptian’s sizable Christian population. Yesterday spokesman Mohamed Nour denied the party would seek a ban on alcohol.
“Maybe 20,000 out of 80 million Egyptians drink alcohol,” he said. “Forty million don’t have clean water.
Do you think that, in parliament, I’ll busy myself with people who don’t have water, or people who get drunk?”
There are indications that a number of Egypt’s liberal and left-wing parties plan to form a broad-based coalition, on the back of their poor performance in the polls.
Many remain sceptical of the Islamists who look likely to dominate the new parliament. “They are closed-minded and reactionary,” said Dina, a 42-year-old office worker from Cairo. “They want to make this country into something it isn’t and will never be.”
Earlier yesterday a 5,000-strong crowd gathered in Tahrir Square to commemorate those killed during the week and to call for a speedier transition to civilian rule. Among them was Aesam Mohamed Fathey, whose son Islam was killed by police in January.
“These elections are just a ruse to get people to leave the square, to get people to forget about what happened,” Mr Fathey said, shouting to be heard over the chants of “we will die in the square” that rang out across the makeshift encampment that sprang up following a military crackdown on protesters last week. “Nothing has happened to the man who killed my son, and nothing will so long as Scaf have power.”
Whether these elections will disrupt the ruling Scaf elite is still unclear. The official explanation for the drawn-out election timetable is that Egypt lacks a sufficient number of trained judges to monitor polling stations and ballot boxes to ensure elections are free and fair.
But critics have accused Scaf of designing an unnecessarily complex and cumbersome system for its own political ends. “Nothing will change as long as Scaf remain,” said Ranza Ali, speaking from a protest outside the People’s Assembly, near Tahrir Square. Wary of a EGP500 fine (£53) for failing to vote, Ali spoiled her ballot. “I wrote ‘glory to the martyrs’ on it,” she says proudly.
Although Egyptians embraced the first election since the end of the Mubarak era, with huge queues at many polling stations, Ms Ali believes that the new government will not spell the end of the protests. “[People] will give the parliament a try but once they see that it can’t do anything they’ll be back out on the streets again. It might take time but it will happen.”