Egypt has been gripped by election fever a few weeks ahead of its first post-revolution parliamentary vote. The country's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced the new electoral law last month, with dates for the elections for both houses. The elections are expected to take five months, with a total of six rounds of voting. Divided into three stages, the elections for the lower house will start on November 28 and end in January. The upper-house elections are expected to begin in January and end in March. The amendments to the electoral law reduced the People's Assembly seats from 508 last year to 498. The Shura council has 270 seats.
"The three stages are meant to make it easier for monitors to oversee voting," said election commission head Abdul Moez Ebrahim, stating that a mixed system will be implemented. "Seventy per cent of the parliamentary seats will be based on the party list system and the remaining 30 per cent through individual-candidate voting. Both independents and party candidates can run for this type."
SCAF, which has been in power since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February, came under public pressure to set a precise date for the election after it changed the timing many times and raised suspicions about the intentions of the army handing over power to civilians after eight months of taking control of the nation.
Criticised as complicated
The law governing the parliamentary election also came under criticism for being very complicated. "Even after the amendments, the mixed system chosen by SCAF remained difficult to administrate, with two different sets of overlapping constituencies. Voters will be presented with complicated ballots," said Diaa Rashwan, a researcher at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Rashwan added that he didn't understand it and that the majority of Egyptians will not be able to deal with such a complicated system. "I expect the voting card will be a metre long because of the number of candidates in the individual and list systems," he said.
Although Egypt's political parties set out for tough campaign battles to win voters, a wide section of the public remained uncertain of the outcome. Amal Abdul Razeq, a 45-year-old housewife, fears that the elections may cause more instability. "We need to prolong the transitional time to allow for security to return with full force into the streets. We know that the feloul [regime remnants] are waiting to create chaos."
On the other hand, activists are enthusiastic, calling the move a "crucial step" in transitioning to civilian rule. "The first solution for Egypt's reform is self-determination, revealing what 82 million Egyptians want. After all, this is why the revolution happened in the first place," said human rights activist Rami Hafez, who is running on the "Wafad's" list.
However, Osama Kamal, international expert in parliamentary systems, told Weekend Review that the elections are more about creating the country's constitution.
"The importance of such elections not only stems from being the first after Mubarak's regime was toppled but mainly from the new parliament's responsibility to form the founding committee that will write Egypt's new constitution, the most crucial document in the life of any nation," Kamal said.
Nathan Brown, professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, suspects that whatever parliament is elected will be a "deeply fractured parliament with deep ideological divides". He believes that the Egyptian constitution will not be written from scratch. "Egypt has a long history of constitutions, so more likely the committee will make use of the 1972 constitution as a starting point," Brown said. He believes that many symbolic and emotional issues will have to be addressed, such as the role of Islam and the status of emergency law.
Already delayed from its initial date in September, the Egyptian High Commission for Elections decided to extend the candidate registration period by a week from the original October 18. The decision came after a number of political groups and parties demanded an extension to reorganise themselves, particularly after several electoral blocs and coalitions experienced splits, which continue to take place.
Record number of candidates
By the time the official candidacy registration period ended, there was a record number of would-be candidates. Initial figures reveal that more than 15,000 candidates registered for the contests, both as independents and as party-based nominees. Of these, more than 8,600 registered as independents competing for one third of the parliamentary seats.
In many campaigning manoeuvres, the solution of bigger coalitions came as the best option for Egypt's 47 parties — about 24 were established after January's revolution. The two main electoral coalitions, the Democratic Alliance for Egypt and the Egyptian Bloc, were formed a few weeks before the candidate registration window opened.
Consisting of 30 parties at the beginning, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is considered the strongest party so far, led the Democratic Alliance which recently has seen a large number of its allies pull out. This has left the FJP, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, with just 16 partners to form its electoral lists.
Political commentators described the scene as highly pluralistic.
According to Wahid Abdul Magid, the election's coordinator for the Democratic Alliance, the Brotherhood's FJP will dominate more than 60 per cent of the Alliance's electoral lists and 70 per cent of the individual seats. Squabbles between the FJP and the powerful Wafd Party over the division of seats resulted in the latter leaving the Alliance to contest elections on its own. Even the Salafi parties, which at one time appeared in harmony with the FJP, have left the Alliance.
Many revolutionists have started to lose hope. Mina Naim, one of the millions who protested for 18 days in Tahrir Square, said that it is less likely that youth "who led the revolution" will get any votes. "The people who fought in Tahrir will not have a voice in the first free parliament, which wouldn't have been possible without them. Many of my fellow revolutionaries struggle to enter the elections due to lack of funding and encouragement. I think we have lost much of the support we enjoyed during the protests," he said.
Analysts suspect that unsecured polling stations and organisational problems may keep large numbers from voting and that general perceptions of fraud due to a lack of independent supervision could lead Egyptians to feel reluctant to participate.
Although SCAF introduced new measures, stipulating fines and prison sentences for any candidates or parties that engage in violence, fraud or campaigning violations, many political forces worry that the elections could be marred by unrest.
The recent violence at Maspero, in which at least 28 people died, raises serious doubts about the ability and willingness of Egypt's military leadership to keep Egypt safe during the sensitive transitional period.
Dr Ahmad Minisi, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said: "Previously police had played a bigger role ensuring Mubarak's NDP dominated Egypt's parliament. However, with different players now entering the game, violations may continue this year as well."
Many new political parties reportedly included members of the former ruling — and now dissolved — National Democratic Party (NDP) on their lists, especially in Upper Egypt.
With weak political parties, it is likely that tribalism will become a more prominent campaign tactic, according to some.
"I predict high levels of violence, especially in Upper Egypt governorates such as Qena and Assiut Governorates," said Sa'ad Aboud, a former Karama Party MP from Beni Suef.
Some reports showed Egyptians to be less interested in participating in these elections than last March's referendum amendments, when voting attracted an unprecedented 41 per cent of the 45 million eligible voters.
Although subjected to major controversy, since several political forces accused Islamist groups of exploiting religion to sway people towards a yes vote, 77.2 per cent of voters approved a referendum on constitutional amendments which charted a clear political path to holding legislative elections before drafting a new constitution.
"At that time the atmosphere was different," explained Ali Mahmoud, a student at the faculty of engineering. "I waited gladly in a queue for more than four hours to cast my vote. But now many old regime faces have reappeared with the same techniques of treating you as a king in the time of elections. After winning, nobody cares."
Although still being studied by SCAF, the proposed Treachery Law banning what have come to be known as "remnants" of the former regime from running in elections for two years has caused much controversy. Some political forces view it as necessary for a real democracy in Egypt while others have criticised it for setting a precedent of political isolation.
Affected directly by the Treachery Law, which will ban former parliamentary members of Mubarak's ruling NDP from carrying out any political activity, a former NDP candidate who won a seat as an independent in 2005 assured Weekend Review that such a law is inequitable.
The member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "In 2005, I contested the elections against an NDP member and managed to succeed. Then I joined the majority bloc which was the ruling party at that time to give better services to my electoral committee. But now I can't even nominate myself, as people know I am a former NDP. Banning us from participating in Egypt's political life is unfair."
Still a vivid memory, the ghost of the 2010 elections still haunts many Egyptians. "Ironically, elections this year will be held on the exact same day as the 2010 elections," said Wafa Qasam, a blogger and an activist.
The elections held last year were called the most rigged elections ever. With judicial observance absent, the results were shocking as the ruling NDP clinched almost 86.4 per cent of the 508 seats in the People's Assembly.
This year, however, local NGOs will reportedly be granted the right to monitor elections, after first submitting a request to the National Council for Human Rights, a semi-governmental organisation that oversees elections. Abdul Moez Ebrahim, the head of the committee, has announced that only registered NGOs will be allowed to inspect ballot boxes inside polling stations. Backtracking from what the ruling military council announced in July, it has now been agreed that international NGOs may observe the elections "from a distance".
Expats to vote
In a historic ruling this year, the Administrative Court ruling allows the estimated 10 million Egyptian expatriates to vote at Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad, in what was regarded as a victory for the Egyptians living abroad who have been campaigning for this issue for years.
Global Post stated that Yousuf Zada, Egypt's consul-general in New York, suggested on his Twitter feed that the Cairo administrative court ruling may be non-binding. Zada also questioned whether the voting process could be set up in time.
Counsellor Mohammad Fouad Jadallah, vice-premier and member of the Board of Trustees of the Revolution, said, "There is no constitutional or legal excuse to deny Egyptians abroad their political rights."
Many of the old NDP campaigning techniques continue: This year saw parties wooing voters by distributing money and free goods, disregarding regulations set by the High Elections Committee that prohibits the use of religious propaganda and places of worship, and public funds, government offices, universities and schools in election campaigns.
The Muslim Brotherhood's use of the slogan "Islam is the Solution" "violates the rules", said Hani Mahmoud, president of the Election Coordination Committee — a body created by the Egyptian cabinet to coordinate with various authorities — to Al Masry Al Youm.
Although it is not certain how a democratic regime can emerge in a short term, many hope the elections will provide indications of the relative weight and support enjoyed by the various parties.
Raghda El Halawany is an independent writer based in Cairo.