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.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Egyptians gather outside a polling site to vote in the parliamentary elections in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 28. Voting began on Monday in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising nine months ago.

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.

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.'"

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I came away from the 2010 election as convinced as ever that the military-backed regime of Mubarak would never reform by choice.

After the polls closed last Nov. 28, Kristen Chick and I wrote: "In some districts, police physically drove opposition supporters away from the polls. In others, opposition candidates were beaten, and according to Egyptian news services, at least eight people died in political violence today. The vast majority of Egyptian voters stayed away from the polls entirely, with independent observers saying turnout of below 20 percent wouldn't surprise them. "Voting is something you do for five minutes, then you get the same outcome for five years," says Ammar Mohammed, an Alexandria butcher who laughed when he was asked if he'd voted. " 'Of course not.' "

Cairo spring? I certainly had no idea what was to come a little more than a month later. It was clear that 2011 was going to be politically tumultuous, but I thought that was going to be over the aging Mubarak's continued efforts to make his son Gamal his successor. That a massive show of street power would topple Mubarak just over two months later would have struck me as unthinkable.

To be sure, the military that represented the core of Mubarak's power remains in charge, and the bureaucracy that fixed elections to Mubarak's and the military's liking for decades is intact. In 2005, the parliamentary elections were held in three stages, as this one is.

Then, the first round was relatively clean by Egyptian standards. But after the Muslim Brotherhood more than doubled its parliamentary representation in Round I, the government pulled out all of the stops to control the final two rounds. So a relatively clean vote today doesn't necessarily say much about the ultimate outcome. 

But it's worth remembering how grim the picture looked then, and how swiftly it changed, when trying to understand the transition that (hopefully) will continue to unfold throughout the next year. The Egyptian public is feeling its own political relevance as rarely before, and that political fact looks like it's here to stay.

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