MUTUBIS, Egypt (Reuters) - Far from restive Cairo, scene of deadly clashes between protesters and security forces, politicians in the Nile Delta town of Mutubis are preparing for parliamentary elections in an atmosphere of relative serenity and confidence about Egypt’s future.
Clashes between security forces and protesters demanding an end to military rule have killed 36 people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and forced concessions from the military.
At a meeting with politicians on Tuesday, the ruling army council agreed to an accelerated handover of power to a civilian president in July to try to calm the protests. Parliamentary elections are to begin on Monday, as scheduled.
In Mutubis, away from the political hubbub in the capital, Mohamed Fadl, a Muslim Brotherhood member who scraped into parliament as an independent in 2005 despite gross and overt electoral abuses by police, said the unrest had had little impact in the constituency.
Politicians from the three main groups competing locally said they did not expect electoral abuses of the past to recur, mainly because the worst offenders, the police and the old ruling party, are out of the picture.
The police force collapsed on January 28, the fourth day of the popular uprising that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. The National Democratic Party (NDP), which ran parliament with large majorities for 30 years, was dissolved by court order in April.
“We are confident the elections will be clean this time, with no external interference,” said Fadl, who plans to run for parliament’s upper house in later polls.
“We have no fear of thuggery this time,” said Mahmoud al-Amrousi, local secretary-general of the liberal Wafd Party, Egypt’s oldest. “The remnants of the NDP are a small minority. Some are standing but they have no grassroots support.”
The elections are a major test of whether Egypt, governed by a military council since a popular uprising toppled Mubarak on February 11, can manage a tricky transition from authoritarian rule to democracy in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
In 2005 riot police sealed off polling stations to prevent any voting in areas the ruling party deemed sympathetic to Fadl, especially in Mutubis, his home town, which lies about 200 km (120 miles) northwest of Cairo. But they did not have the manpower to do the same across the whole constituency.
When women tried to break through to vote, the riot police beat them with sticks and eventually dispersed them with tear gas. Similar scenes took place in many parts of Egypt.
At the national level, election preparations have been traumatic and uncertain. The army council repeatedly promised a law to exclude corrupt members of the former system but only announced it on Monday, in the thick of street protests.
Two provincial courts issued conflicting rulings on whether former NDP members could stand. Just two weeks before the start of voting, a higher court in Cairo decreed they could.
Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Silmi stirred up a hornet’s nest by floating a document that would in effect have given the armed forces permanent immunity from civilian oversight.
That document may now be a dead letter, given the rage it has unleashed in city streets.
Police in Mutubis have been lying low since January, so much so that people complain more about their ineffectiveness than about their brutal treatment of the public, as in the old days.
“In the past, they would take people in and slap them across the face. Now if you call them to say your car’s been stolen, they might not even answer,” Fadl said.
Mutubis residents said the local contest was between the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the clear frontrunner, the Salafi Islamists of the Nour (Light) Party, and the Wafd. NDP remnants are running locally as the Egyptian Citizen Party.
“The Freedom and Justice Party has a good reach in the street, because they have done many good things for the town,” said Kamal el-Abd, a small businessman who has not yet decided who to vote for. “There will be a big turnout because people are confident that the elections will be free,” he added.
Judging by its visual presence in the form of posters, stickers and offices, the Nour Party has grown faster than any other in the region. It did not exist in the era of Mubarak, who did not allow political parties with overtly religious agendas.
Mohamed Nuaynaa, the party’s secretary in Mutubis, said most Nour Party activists used to help the independents of the Muslim Brotherhood in previous elections because they could not have a party or candidates of their own.
“We couldn’t express our real views. Now we hope to take 20 percent of the seats, but the really important thing is to have clean elections and a good turnout,” he added.
Since Mubarak’s overthrow, rural Egyptians have tended to be less critical of the military council than their urban compatriots, a trend reflected in an April referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by the council. Only a few urban centers rejected the amendments.
But the events of the past month, especially the Silmi document, have eroded the popularity of the generals and made the Islamists more wary of their intentions.
“We are against the document. It’s an attempt to circumvent the will of the people,” said Nuaynaa. “But we do still hope the military will carry out their promises.”
Editing by Alistair Lyon and Jon Hemming