Amid Egypt's election, Tahrir Square stays relevant (VIDEO)

Egypt's elections have begun amid high turnout and public optimism. But Tahrir Square's protesters are promising to keep the pressure on the country's military rulers. 

Bernat Armangue/AP
Protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Tuesday. Polls opened Tuesday for a second day of voting in Egypt's landmark parliamentary elections, the first since Hosni Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising earlier this year.

The high turnout in the first round of Egypt's elections showed a public embracing the chance to appoint their own representatives after years of sham elections. But it should not be read as widespread acceptance of the military’s monopoly of power, say those who support ongoing protests against military rule.

“I think that the more people that came to vote it means the more people want the military gone,” says Amira Mikhail, an activist who participates in Tahrir protests and voted yesterday. “People are saying we want our own government, we want our own representation, so we're asking you to leave.”

The elections held yesterday and today are the first in a three-round process to elect a new lower house of parliament after this year's uprising ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. They come as frustration has grown with the military leaders who took over from Mubarak, who have mismanaged a difficult transition, continued much of Mubarak’s repression, and delayed the timeline for transferring power to civilian rule.

That frustration boiled over in Cairo's Tahrir Square last week and spread as a broad cross-section of Egyptian society joined protests against military rule, threatening to derail elections. The military has sought to discredit such protesters as a minority in a country of 85 million. In a news conference last week, a member of the ruling military council, Maj. General Mukhtar El Mallah, said, “People in Tahrir do not represent the Egyptian people.”

But while many Egyptians prioritize stability, those willing to protest – even in the face of violence by security forces – say all they need is a critical mass.

“Even during the 18 days [of protest against Mubarak], not all 85 million Egyptians were supporting what was happening in the street,” says Ramy Raoof, online media officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who goes to Tahrir every day after work. Yet enough came out that Mubarak was forced from power. Since then, displays of strength on the street have forced concessions from the military rulers as well.

“Going for demonstrations and protests and going to the elections – there is no contradiction between them,” says Mr. Raoof. “Both are to end the military system and SCAF period and another step toward a stable democratic country. We have two paths – peaceful protests and elections.”

While many Egyptians may have been frustrated with military rulers, what sparked last week's massive demonstrations was brutality by security forces. Such behavior was also a driving factor behind the uprising against Mubarak, whose police tortured and abused citizens with impunity. Repeated police and military violence against protesters over the summer, culminating on Oct. 9, when security forces killed 27, and last week, when they killed more than 40 people across the country over five days, motivated Egyptians to take to the streets by the tens of thousands once more.

Many Egyptians will likely be willing to give the new parliament a chance, and street protests could die down in the meantime. But it is yet unclear how much power the parliament will have. The military council has the final say in legislation, appointing a cabinet, and made moves recently toward having a larger role in the creation of a committee to write the constitution, which was supposed to be the responsibility of the new parliament. If the legislative body is seen as powerless, another crackdown might easily ignite renewed anger and protests.

Numbers dwindle in Tahrir

Massive crowds gathered in Tahrir last week, demanding that the military hand over power to civilians. The protests came after a large demonstration led by Islamist groups making the same demand. But they began when police forcefully expelled hundreds of people from the square, and they multiplied exponentially as security forces killed protesters.

By the middle of the week, Tahrir Square looked as it had during the mass protests against Mubarak in January and February, this time with the crowds demanding the ouster of the military rulers. The protesters weren't just the core of activists who had struggled to fill the square over the summer, but a broader group of Egyptians.

As the elections approached, numbers in the square dwindled. Today, a few thousand milled around, arguing about politics or chanting against the military government.

New banners honored the people whose deaths last week had brought others to Tahrir and tents made from blankets and tarps filled the garden in the center of the square. Some were worried the military would use the smooth election process and high turnout as justification to once again kick them out of the square, saying that they don’t have the support of all Egyptians.

A two-pronged offensive against military rule

And indeed, many Egyptians are against protests. In some neighborhoods of Cairo yesterday, many voters expressed worries about the country’s stability and frustration with high prices. They saw protesters in Tahrir as exacerbating both problems.

“They are destroying the economy,” said Zein Al Abidine Hassan.

Another voter, Abdel Hakim Mahmoud Abdel Hakim, said those in the square represent 5 percent of Egyptians. “These incidents encouraged us to come and vote so we can help this country to get back to work and progress, and to have a parliament that represents us instead of these everlasting demonstrations,” he said of last week’s violence and protests.

Others said they supported Tahrir, and said they voted out of hope that the new parliament would be strong enough to challenge the military, taking the battle from the streets to the halls of parliament. In Tahrir today, Mohamed Mustapha said he voted for just that reason. “We must fight on both fronts,” he said. “Maybe the parliament will be able to take power from the military. But also we can’t leave Tahrir.”

A government employee who says he was motivated to street protest by police and military brutality against protesters, Mr. Mustapha says many of those in the square voted over the past two days. But they came back, and would continue to come back until their demands were met, one way or the other. “We hope for a political solution,” he said. “But we are ready to take our rights from the street, as well.”

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