In 2005 Egypt held its first so-called free multi-candidate presidential elections. Billboards and posters around Cairo featured a 77-year-old Hosni Mubarak, the prime contender, looking rueful in an open-collared shirt, above the slogan: 'A crossing to the future'. "What future?" asked a cab driver. "It should have said malesh (never mind),"--an expression used to signal resignation in the face of mishaps, and an appropriate sentiment considering the regime's dismal 30-year performance.
'The future' turned out to be more dynamic than voters or political contenders anticipated in 2005. As Egypt neared the date of its first 'real' free multi-party elections (28 November 2011) to reconstitute the upper and lower houses of parliament, last February's elation over the ousting of Hosni Mubarak had already been replaced by strain and ambivalence. Egyptians were divided between a desire to return to 'normal', a dreary yet predictable status quo, and to build a new political system, a lot of hard, and for average citizens, incomprehensible work.
'Normality' reigns, albeit uneasily, thanks to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), composed of 20 high-ranking officers and led by 76-year-old Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, veteran of three wars and a Mubarak confidante. The Emergency Law, granting carte blanche to Egypt's security apparatus since 1981, was lifted, except for incidents of 'thuggery', but civilians continue to be arbitrarily detained, tried by military tribunal, imprisoned and tortured. Press and media censorship are still problematic, especially for those critiquing the military, whose economic interests are vast yet largely opaque. The economic outlook is bleak, with tourism down and workers in every sector striking for a living wage. During the last Islamic feast in November, families found it hard to afford the traditional meal of meat, priced at around $16 per kilo. But many opted to buy it from certain Islamic groups, who were offering it at a lower, subsidised price. Direct and indirect vote buying is a long-standing feature of elections, a favoured campaign tool of both former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidates.
Although the SCAF has a reputation for efficiency, it was conspicuously inept in preparing for elections. Dates were repeatedly postponed; voting districts and polling procedures left uncertain. Judicial supervision was planned, but...