Egyptians fret about voting violence after clashes

CAIRO Sun Nov 20, 2011 11:07am EST

A protester gestures as a riot policeman points a gun at him during a clash near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 20, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

A protester gestures as a riot policeman points a gun at him during a clash near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians vote next week for the first parliament since toppling Hosni Mubarak but a surge in violence between protesters and police show the street will likely stay a battleground for Egypt's unfinished revolution even after polling stations close.

After ending Mubarak's 30-year rule in February, Cairo's Tahrir Square was once again filled with teargas and debris after police tried to break-up a sit-in calling for the army council now ruling Egypt to leave and hand power to civilians.

"Nine months after the revolution, people's dignity is still being violated. Tahrir is Egypt's conscience, keeping an eye on those who stray" from the revolution's goals, said graphic designer Qadafi Mahboub, 38.

Nearby a group of hundreds of demonstrators chanted "The people want to topple the regime," a throwback to scenes during the uprising that drove Mubarak and his party from office.

Many vowed not to leave until the army quits power.

The army, which says it has no interest in retaining political control, insists the flare-up will not deter it from starting the staggered polls on November 28 as planned.

But an surge in violence during voting, a common feature of elections in Mubarak's era of rigged polls, could undermine the assembly's legitimacy if the result is questioned and deepen public frustration at the army's handling of the transition.

Police could struggle to keep order at the polls due to deep-seated anger at their actions during Mubarak's time and as political rivals, particularly in rural areas, turn to Mubarak-era tactics of using hired "thugs" to help them win seats.

"We may be heading toward some instability. But this will depend on whether the army will be finally convinced that the game is over and that it has to hand power to the elected civil institutions," said Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political science professor who was an anti-Mubarak activist.

Despite the frustrations and fears for the poll, what was effectively one-man and one-party rule has been transformed by a dizzying array of new parties and voices since February.

Posters promote ultra-conservative Islamists repressed by Mubarak, the new liberal parties licensed since his ousting and the long-established groups, such as the Wafd Party, which withdrew from the last vote, saying it was unfair.

Yet much of the old order remains. Parliament will have a legislative role, but executive power stays with army generals who served Mubarak. Many Egyptians were galvanized to protest after seeing police employ the same tactics used under Mubarak.

"The power of the street is very real. It may be irregular, it may act with a degree of spontaneity and it may be emotional but it is really the one moving events," said political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan.

ARMY ROLE

Although its powers will be limited, parliament is likely to find itself battling over the shape of a new cabinet which the army has the power to pick and over the extent the army will seek to enshrine powers for itself in a new constitution.

The new parliament will be responsible for picking a 100-strong constituent assembly which will write the new document.

But politicians were enraged this month when the army-backed cabinet proposed principles for a new constitution to shield the military from civilian supervision and to give it a broad national security remit that analysts said would give the army a pretext to undermine a civilian government.

The cabinet has backtracked after the uproar. The army has repeatedly said it has no interest in holding onto power. But the concessions and reassurances were not enough to deter this weekend's protests, or the violence that followed.

Some expect the debate over the army's role to last years.

"Nobody will be powerful enough to take any measures against the military or try to bring them under civilian rule. I can't see this happening for 10 years," said analyst Hisham Kassem.

As that debate drags, parliament is also likely to skirmish over how soon to hold a presidential vote, which under a timetable outlined by the army may not happen until the end of 2012 or early 2013.

"The presidential election must start (right after) the parliamentary election ... When you have an elected parliament you can insist," said Essam el-Erian, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood's newly established Freedom and Justice Party.

His party could emerge as one of the biggest blocs in the new parliament. Though banned under Mubarak, the Brotherhood spent decades building up a grassroots network across the nation through social work and support for the poor.

In the 2005 parliamentary election it ran candidates as independents to skirt the ban and won 20 percent of seats, losing votes to ballot box manipulation but picking up protest votes as the only significant opposition to Mubarak's party.

With so many new parties and faces on Egypt's political scene and a complex electoral system of lists and individual candidates, analysts say the Brotherhood's party could win votes in part because people are confused by the alternatives.

But while the Brotherhood could once virtually monopolize the Islamist and opposition vote, other Islamists have emerged such as ultra-conservative Salafist parties, a groups following more mystical Sufi orders or moderate followers of the newly founded Wasat (Center) Party. This may split the Islamist vote.

The Salafist party Nour (Light) quit a Brotherhood alliance saying it was hogging too many seats in election voting lists. Erian said Salafists would be a "burden" to any political coalition because of their inexperience.

FORMER LOYALISTS

Analysts give a broad range of predictions for the vote in the country of 80 million people and 50 million eligible voters.

Most do not see any single group emerging with a majority, although they say Islamists could secure anything up to 40 percent of the 498 elected seats in the lower house, with liberal-leaning groups winning perhaps a third of seats.

Many of the remainder could go to former loyalists of Mubarak's party. Some have formed their own parties. Others are members of big families, often in rural areas, who won in Mubarak's time and joined his party in a bid to secure more influence rather than out of any ideological commitment.

Yet most analysts agree it is almost impossible to forecast accurately what the lower house will look like after a vote that runs until early January. The upper house vote follows.

Many Egyptians are struggling to understand an electoral system that gives two thirds of seats to party lists and a third to individuals. Many will choose based on personalities rather than ideology - particularly in rural areas - but the system made constituencies so big there is little personal contact.

An enthusiastic but anxious voter, called Ahmed, told a nighttime radio talk show as campaigning heated up: "We have a very important vote coming and we have no clue what to do."

Some fear a weak parliament fail to build confidence in the new political system that is badly needed to win back investors who fled after the uprising and fret over the uncertain outlook.

But Cairo University's Nafaa said the vote would start the process of shaking marginal voices out of Egypt's politics who, in the absence of any clear indication of their real support, have continued to claim space in post-uprising Egypt.

"It is a little anarchic right now," he said, adding that after the vote: "There will be a new process with true political forces. You will know exactly who to deal with."

(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Dina Zayed)

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