Lessons from Egypt's sometimes ugly electoral history (video)
If this election is fair, it will mark a sharp departure from the past. But with two rounds to go, Egypt's rulers could still tighten control – just as they did after the Muslim Brotherhood did well in 2005.
The runup to Egypt's parliamentary election today has been chaotic, violent, and confusing. Name a negative adjective to describe the atmosphere ahead of the vote and the quality of preparations and it probably fits.Skip to next paragraph
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However, reports from the ground make it clear that average voters haven't really been deterred. Long lines at polling places across Cairo and other cities saw the government extend voting hours til 9 p.m. local time (2 p.m. Eastern time). While the lines are in part a product of poor planning, they're also a sign that Egyptians are taking these elections far differently than the ones held under Hosni Mubarak.
Those were largely rigged affairs, for a parliament that had little independent authority anyway, and turnout was light as a result. This time, people obviously think their votes count for more. For all the doubts about whether Egypt is heading towards a democracy, it's worth taking a look back to see how much has changed.
The last parliamentary election under Mubarak began exactly a year ago. A few days before the poll, Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) had the situation well in hand. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose new Freedom and Justice Party looks set to be a major player in the new parliament, was defeated before a vote had been cast.
"We try to campaign in the streets, we get pushed into alleys. After we're pushed in the alleys, the police are waiting there to beat us," Hassan Ibrahim, the deputy of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the last parliament, said on Nov. 26, 2010. "What we're being told is that if you want to run, you have to be prepared for beatings and possibly death."
Ahead of the election, which I was covering from Egypt, I wrote: "The atmosphere is markedly different from the one five years ago. Then, the nascent secular opposition movement Kifaya (Enough) held rowdy rallies in Cairo and other cities. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was making alliances with other opposition groups. And with the US – Egypt's largest foreign financial backer, largely because of the country's peace treaty with Israel – pushing for democratic reform, some analysts were predicting a 'Cairo spring.'"