The Egyptian Voting Learning Curve
Images of violence predominate, and some worry that the revolution will succeed only in replacing one dictator with another. However, no matter who wins parliamentary elections, a fundamental fact will be reaffirmed: Nothing can ultimately stop the movement for change in Egypt and the wider Arab world.
The long lines at polling stations in Cairo from the earliest hours of the morning of Nov. 28 - the first day in a series of voting days nationwide that will culminate in Egypt's first post-Mubarak Parliament by early January - attest to the fact that Egyptians are hungry to play a major role in the future of their country. Similarly, this March, 18 million people turned out to vote in a referendum on constitutional changes.
Of course, the current elections are not without controversy. There are fears there will be violence, under-representation of liberal trends, and a continuation of the worst practices, such as bribery, vote rigging and violence from past elections. All of these fears are legitimate. There are also those who think the elections should not be held in light of the violence in Tahrir Square in the past several days, leaving more than 40 dead and thousands injured in clashes between protestors and police over demands that the military council ruling the country immediately transfer power to a civilian leadership.
Critics of the council's record thus far point to a confused decision-making process that has not provided a clear road map of the country's future, thousands of military trials of civilians and what is perceived as a tightening of authoritarian controls - none of these inspire confidence in the council's ability to oversee truly free and fair elections. But dealing with an imperfect process in the best way possible is the only option right now.
This should involve active participation in the elections as well as continued pressure by protesters in Tahrir Square. It is thus heartening to have seen, in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 28, a return of hundreds of thousands of protestors to the square. At the same time, there has been a flurry of election related information: Signs in the streets, advertisements on television, discussion on talk shows and Internet applications that tell citizens where to vote, among others.
And yet, the day before the election, potential voters from across the board from Facebook addicts to citizens who only rarely use technology – were still asking the same basic questions: Who is running in my district? Who should I pick? What do they stand for? How does the election system work? And what will happen after the election takes place?
Egyptians are struggling with these kinds of questions for the first time, and old and new parties are scrambling to answer them. Although the campaigning has not been perfectly effective or informative, this represents a paradigm shift that could only have taken place post-Jan.25, from which there is no going back.
Despite the very real challenges, for the forces of change the elections are a win-win situation. If a fair and truly representative Parliament is elected, then a brighter future will appear sooner than anyone is currently expecting. If the elections turn out to be rigged, however, and results in a lopsided Parliament that does not reflect Egypt's diversity, it will only increase anger in the street and push people to work harder for real change – whether in Tahrir or on the next campaign trail, be it parliamentary or presidential.
Democracy has a learning curve that may take some time to come to fruition and requires more sacrifice. But buoyed by the revolutionary movement, hope has not been extinguished in the Middle East's most populous nation, and thus the region as a whole.
By Tarek Atia