Egypt Elections: With Ten Days To Go, Thousands Flood Tahrir Square

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CAIRO -- Tens of thousands of people poured into Cairo's Tahrir Square, the site of the original protest movement that brought down Egypt's dictator in February, to express their disaffection with the military council that has governed the country since.

Friday's protest gathering, nearly as large as any since the uprising forced president Hosni Mubarak from office, comes just ten days before Egypt is set to hold its first truly open, democratic elections.

But despite that milestone, the massive event also served as a reminder of how far the country is from the sort of transparent, populist society that seemed deceptively at hand back in February. After nine months of often arbitrary rule by the military, political and religious divides seemed to yield -- if only for a day -- in order to advocate the return of civilian government.

Even the upcoming elections will only result in a popularly selected parliament; the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has put off the vote for a president until early 2013.

"Today, we just want to say to the military council, thanks for what you've done, you've made some mistakes, but now you must deliver power to a civilian authority," said Ashraf Abdullah, a forty-year-old English teacher who had travelled an hour and a half to come to Tahrir.

"It is time for elections, and we want the power delivered to the people, whoever the Egyptian people choose."

If the protests on Friday seemed at first glance a repeat of the revolutionary days in February, so much about that moment, and the toppling of Mubarak, seemed turned on its head.

Back in February, protestors -- largely secular and civic minded, but with a healthy contribution of religious Muslims -- had joined hands with a compliant Army to demand the ouster of an autocratic president.

Now, Tahrir was dominated by bearded Muslims in traditional garb, many of them members of a strict religious community known as Salafists, who had come to protest that very same Army, and call for the restoration of a presidency. (The far better known Muslim Brotherhood, also in Tahrir in force, advocates a more moderate vision of Islam's role in government.)

The decision by the Brotherhood and several Salafist groups to take part in Friday's "day of unity" against the Army's rule had forced the hand of liberals and the young revolutionaries, many of whom have been apprehensive about joining forces with the Salafists, but equally wary of ceding to them any remaining political momentum, or the symbolic power of Tahrir.

"The secularists and the Islamists are one hand," an elderly Islamist in a green full length gown said cheerfully, echoing a common refrain from the days of the revolution, when it was frequently said that the people and the Army were "one hand" -- joined in a common purpose.

"I love the Islamists," said Mohamed Mohey, a young liberal activist who said he refuses to align himself with any of the political parties. "If they want to do something, they get it done -- I wish we were half as organized as them. We want the same things they do, but maybe not always the same way. I don't want an Islamic government, but if the people choose it, I can live with it. This is how democracy works."

But even that bonhomie seemed uncertain, or at least unreliable. Sectarian divisions over the past several months have only further added to the sense that Egypt's problems are intractable, and it was hard not to detect deep suspicion when each side spoke about the other.

"The Islamists use religion to get the attention of their people, and to get their vote," said a young poet who gave his name as Ahmed, as he accused the Muslim Brotherhood of backing the Army's rule. "They've already taken over the revolution from us, and now it's started to turn into a bloody, political conflict."

Indeed, if revolutions are ever straightforward -- and with a simple dichotomy between a dictator and the people, this once appeared to be the case -- those days have long come and gone in Egypt.

When asked the question of how far the revolution has progressed, those in Tahrir Friday answered: "The revolution must continue." "The revolution is merely at the end of the beginning." "The revolution has not yet begun."

"It's been muddied since March," said Michael Wahid Hanna, an expert on Egypt's transition at the Century Foundation, referring to the period almost immediately following the fall of Mubarak.

"That's when you got the big dividing line between Islamists and liberals," Hanna said, "and that was when SCAF was able to start interfering, because of the disintegration in the opposition ranks. But when the opposition takes a unified stance, SCAF can't get in the way."

Inevitably, some of the greatest difficulty facing Egypt's transition comes in the mundane form of the vote itself, which is expected to boost the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, but so far has much of the public confounded by its complexity.

With about ten thousand candidates from dozens of parties, many of which only formed in the past few months, even the most politically engaged Egyptian has struggled to navigate a list-based election process that will take place over several weeks.

On Thursday evening, a walk with a liberal candidate for parliament around the poor Christian neighborhood of Shoubra seemed to confirm this.

As Basem Kamel, a young, cheerful candidate with the Social Democratic party, canvassed the area with his small team of aides handing out flyers, many of his exchanges focused on how, exactly, the voting works.

"We have to do this," Kamel said with a shrug, as he hurried between a mini market and a shoe store. His modest pitch: "I don't care who you vote for, but please get involved in the elections."

After one such conversation, in which several young men complained to Kamel that they were finding the process incomprehensible, one of the men stayed behind to elaborate.

"There are all these people putting themselves up for election, putting banners up over the streets or introducing themselves," said the man, who identified himself as Ehab. "But we don't know anything about them. I am from this area, and one of these people will be my representative in Parliament, but who are they, what do they stand for? For me, this is not what the revolution was about."

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