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Egypt votes Monday, but uncertainty rules

CAIRO - Egyptians prepared to vote Monday in the first elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a milestone many hoped would usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship. Instead, the polling is already marred by turmoil in the streets and the population is sharply polarized and confused over the nation's direction.

Nine months after the popular uprising that pushed Mubarak out, protesters are back in the streets. This time, they are demanding that military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his council of generals step down immediately, accused of bungling the transition. Nine days of clashes that have left more than 40 dead have heightened fears of violence at polling stations.

More critically, the political crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, which is expected to be dominated by Islamic parties. That could render the parliament that emerges irrelevant.

"We have no idea who we are going to vote for," said Mustafa Attiya Ali, a 50-year-old barber in Cairo. "We don't know any of the candidates, but I and my friends will get together tonight and decide who to vote for."

Egypt's military rulers decided to forge ahead with the elections despite the new wave of unrest, scenes starkly reminiscent of the first uprising. On Sunday night in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of the original uprising, a relatively small crowd of a few thousand braved a rare rainstorm to keep the round-the-clock protests going.

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Egypt has not had a fair or clean election in recent memory. The last parliamentary vote held under Mubarak was in November and December a year ago and it was so fraudulent, the ruling party won all but a handful of seats.

Tantawi and other generals have pledged to ensure a clean election and troops and police began deploying on Sunday evening to protect thousands of polling centers. Foreign groups sent missions to witness the vote, but officially the military banned international election observers.

"I have serious concerns about the safety of the ballot boxes staying overnight uncounted at the polling centers," said Hassan Issa, an oil engineer from Alexandria. "They will definitely be rigged," he predicted.

A high turnout will likely benefit the military because the vote is a crucial part of a road map it proposed for a transfer of power to civilian authorities ending with presidential elections before the end of June 2012.

High turnout may also undermine the tens of thousands of anti-military protesters — many of them see the vote as inconsequential. It could also dilute the Islamist vote because the majority of Egyptians, while pious, prefer separation of religion and politics.

"I want an Islamic state in Egypt, but not like Saudi Arabia or Iran," said Mohammed, a 19-year-old student from Cairo's upscale Mohandiseen district who only wanted his first name published.

Low turnout could give credence to protester claims that the vote lacks relevance and legitimacy and bolster the argument that voting should have been put off until the military returned to its barracks.

The uprising that forced Mubarak out after nearly 30 years in power left his regime almost entirely intact. The weeks that followed his ouster saw a series of massive protests that pressured the military into caving in to some of the revolutionaries' demands, including the arrest of Mubarak and his two sons. Mubarak is now on trial on charges carrying the death penalty, while the two sons, including one-time Mubarak heir apparent Gamal, are facing corruption charges.

Relations between the military and the youth groups behind the uprising steadily deteriorated, primarily over the trial of civilians before military tribunals — at least 12,000 since February — and other human rights violations. The military responded to the criticism with a campaign to discredit the groups as stooges of foreign powers, portraying protesters as irresponsible youths and football hooligans.

The rift widened with the ruling council trying to push through guidelines for the drafting of the next constitution that would give the military immunity from oversight and a guardianship political role that would allow it the final word on major policies. The activists said it was a power grab.

Adding to election-related confusion, many candidates have suspended their campaigns over the past week, either because of the tenuous security or so as not to be seen as too thirsty for the power that comes with a parliamentary seat.

"I am not going to vote tomorrow because everyone who is running is a thief and only cares for the seat they want to sit in," said Abu Ahmed, a 36-year-old fruit vendor in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. "Many times they've tried to buy my vote with a bag of food or money. They know that I'm poor and they want to take advantage of me. I don't read or write, but I know that Tantawi needs to go," he said.

Tantawi responded to the calls for him to leave by digging in Sunday, refusing to surrender power and issuing stern threats of "extremely grave" consequences if the unrest does not end.

The protests have left at least 43 dead and more than 2,000 wounded, according to the Health Ministry, most of them in Cairo.

"Egypt is at a crossroads — either we succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that," warned Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years. He accused foreign powers he did not name of meddling in Egypt's affairs, echoing Mubarak's rhetoric in his final days of power offering his regime as the preserver of order and the alternative as chaos.

"We will not allow a small minority of people who don't understand to harm Egypt's stability," he said, alluding to the protesters in Tahrir.

The protesters demand the military give up power in favor of a civilian presidential council and a "national salvation" government to run the country's affairs until a president is elected.

The military has come under intense criticism for most of the past nine months for its failure to restore security, stop the rapid worsening of the economy or introduce the far-reaching reforms called for by the youth groups behind Mubarak's fall and the ongoing protest movement. They also have not barred people associated with the old regime from running, one of the things that has raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote.

Protesters' anger has been heightened by the death toll that mounts daily.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the nation's largest political group, has stayed away from the protests, apparently out of concern that it might derail an election it is expected to dominate along with other Islamists.

An injured protester is aided by others during clashes with Egyptian security forces, not pictured, near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. AP Photo

The Brotherhood, notorious for its political opportunism, along with other Islamist groups see the vote as their opportunity to translate relatively wide popular appeal into formal political power that enables them to bring mainly Muslim Egypt closer to their dream of a purist Islamic state.

Their boycott of the anti-military protests has deepened differences with secular, liberal and leftists forces behind the current wave of unrest, deepening political schisms in the country.

The secular and liberal youth groups failed to capitalize on their astonishing triumph over the Mubarak regime and gain political muscle to effectively contest the election. Divided and lacking political acumen, many of them lost touch with the masses, earning the nickname "the Internet elite," a reference to their successful use of social networking sites to organize protests. They lacked a unified vision, leadership and an organized campaign.

Significantly, the military has said that it will retain the right to appoint and dismiss the Cabinet even after the new legislature is seated and is trying to take away from the chamber the right to select the proposed 100-member panel that will draft the next constitution.

If the military clings to its status, there are likely to be stormy negotiations over the formation of a government, and the protesters will try to influence events by bringing numbers to the streets. In any case, lawmakers at best will be on the sidelines trying to make their voice heard.

It is not even clear how long this parliament will be in place. The multistage election for parliament's two chambers stretches on until March. Then, under the latest timetable put forward by the generals, the constitution must be written and approved by late June. No one has addressed the question of whether the parliament being created now could continue in place under a new constitution or whether a new election would be needed.

The election for the 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will be held in three stages ending in January, when voting begins for the 390-seat upper chamber, also in three stages, to conclude in March. Monday's vote will take place in nine provinces whose residents account for 24 milion of Egypt's estimated 85 million people. Most prominent of the nine provinces are Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city.

Run-off elections for all six stages will take place a week after each of the six rounds. Voting in each stage has been extended by one extra day, a decision made by the military to boost the turnout but which has raised suspicions that it could encourage foul play.

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