Millions of Egyptians head to the polls in the first parliamentary vote after a popular uprising ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.
The elections end decades of what was effectively one-party rule and will establish a parliament to lead the drafting of a new constitution within a year. If approved in a subsequent referendum, this constitution will shape Egypt's future.
But few Egyptians understand the complex election system or know what the parties represent.
"The election system is really confusing," Saed Abdel Hafez, chairman of the local NGO, Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue, told IRIN. "Because people do not understand the system, they will most likely vote for the people or the powers they used to vote for in the past. This means that the next parliament will not reflect the new political realities created by the revolution."
This, analysts say, could send protesters back to the streets and prolong instability.
The election law adopts a mixed system - members in one-third of the constituencies (the smaller ones) will be elected in a first-past-the-post system, while members in two-thirds of the constituencies (the larger ones) will be elected through proportional representation. The electoral districts have been redrawn to suit the new system.
One-third of the seats are reserved for independent candidates, to give non-party members an equal chance. Some fear this will benefit former members of Mubarak's now disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP), who are running as independents. But political parties can field candidates against them as independents.
Citing security fears and the large number of voters, the Egyptian military, which took over after Mubarak stepped down, decided to hold the elections over three stages with two-week intervals. Presidential elections are expected to follow in 2013.
Mamdouh Qenawi, head of the Free Constitutional Social Party, which has fielded 56 candidates, says voters will find it difficult to distinguish independents from political party candidates, and People's Assembly candidates from Shura Council candidates.
The Shura Council (the senate or upper house of parliament) reviews draft laws made by the government before referring them to the People's Assembly (the lower house of parliament) to become law.
The new election system divides Egypt into 129 People's Assembly constituencies and 60 Shura Council constituencies. Each of the constituencies will have between two and 12 seats for a total of 498 seats in the lower house and 270 seats in the upper house.
Political parties have to introduce a list of candidates in each constituency. Each list must include at least one female candidate and adopt a specific symbol. The lists are closed to the public to restrict personalized voting.
There are 50 political parties now [ http://www.eip.gov.eg/Directories/Directory.aspx?id=56 (Arabic) ], (for a less detailed, but English link http://egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org/category/political-parties ) which have presented 590 lists for the People's Assembly and 272 lists for the Shura Council. About 6,591 independents will contest seats in the People's Assembly and 2,036 will contest seats in the Shura Council.
Half of these parties were created after the revolution. Previously, only four or five had any kind of profile in the country. "I hear about parties that keep coming into existence every day, but I really do not know anything about most of them," said Tamir Hassan, a postal service driver in his mid-30s. "But I have to go to the polling station on Election Day because this is a national duty."
Under Mubarak, citizens had to obtain special voting cards from police stations, an arduous process that kept millions away. This time, Egyptians can use their identity cards at polling stations, as they did in March during a referendum on the interim constitution.
The use of identity cards means about 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote, according to Justice Abdel Moez Ibrahim, chairman of the Higher Electoral Commission, which oversees the electoral process.
Egypt's political parties can be divided into four basic categories: Islamist, leftist, liberal and revolutionary youth parties. Equally important are the candidates who will run as independents.
If one group has benefited the most from the revolution, it is Egypt's Islamists, who were banned and jailed under Mubarak for years. A large number were released from prison, given the right to assemble, appeared on TV and formed their own political parties. Egypt's Islamist parties can be divided into the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
The Muslim Brotherhood started as a charitable educational organization in'27, but later became involved in politics. It experienced repeated crackdowns from all Egypt's presidents, starting with Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1971), who had initially cooperated with them in the military coup of'52, but later turned against them by putting their leaders in prison and torturing them, to Mubarak (1981-2011) who imprisoned almost all the leaders and banned its activities.
Mubarak prevented the Muslim Brotherhood from establishing a political party and in 2007 introduced to parliament a package of constitutional amendments that outlawed the establishment of political parties along religious lines.
After the revolution, however, the Muslim Brotherhood movement established its own Freedom and Justice Party. It is led by Mohamed Mursi, a long-time executive in the movement, but less-known to the public. He is aided by well-known Muslim Brotherhood leaders, such as Mohamed Saad Al Katatni, a former legislator and secretary-general of the party; Essam Al Erian, a medical doctor and former spokesman for the movement; and Mahmud Ghozlan, a chemistry professor and official spokesman for the party.
Freedom and Justice Party leaders had initially said they would contest only 30 percent of the seats in parliament, but later raised the percentage to 40. Now they say they will contest 50 percent of the seats.
The party calls for the application of Sharia law to all aspects of life, including the economy, politics and tourism. This, it says, will protect economic activity from exploitation and monopoly.
But speaking at a recent seminar in Cairo, Al Katatni said if his party came to power, it would prevent tourists from wearing bikinis and drinking alcohol in public. However, despite such statements, the Muslim Brotherhood is riding a wave of popularity, particularly in the countryside where it offers basic services - including food and medical treatment - to the poor.
A group of former Muslim Brotherhood dissenters established their own party, Al Wasat (Middle Ground), led by Abul Ela Madi, an engineer who more than 15 years ago severed ties with the Muslim Brotherhood because of what he described as an "ideological conflict". The party aims for the middle ground between the strict religious brand of thought represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals.
To enforce his moderate vision, Madi had enlisted Christian members to his party, which is contesting seats in most constituencies.
The Salafists are ultra-conservative Muslims who preach a strict version of religion that focuses on the punitive part of Islamic law. Many in Egypt started hearing about the Salafists only after the revolution because the former regime did its utmost to keep the lid on their political rise by jailing them.
More radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists do not believe that Muslims need western democracy, urging that there is more equality and guarantees for minorities in Islam than western democracy can afford.
"Minorities led their most dignified times when Islam was strong," said Sheikh Abdel Monem Al Shahat, a leader from the coastal city of Alexandria, an important Salafist centre.
Al Shahat does not believe non-Muslims should assume positions of power in Islamic states; and Christians, who make up almost 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million population, should not be allowed to be judges, ministers, or prime ministers.
Ridiculing people who call for equal rights for Christians in post-revolution Egypt, Al Shahat told a group of 50 followers in a mosque in Alexandria: "I think next they will tell us that Christians must lead Muslims in the prayers." .
Salafists are totally against the appearance of women in public without being fully covered. They consider a woman's voice to be un-Islamic if it is raised in public. One Salafist leader recently said his party would put women on its lists, provided they did not talk to men in parliament or raised their voice in public.
There are seven Salafist parties. The newest is the Construction and Development Party, founded by the Jamaat Islamia Organisation, which spearheaded terrorist attacks against tourists in the'90s and masterminded the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat in'81. Other Salafist parties include Al Islah (Reform), Al Nour (Light), Al Adalah (Justice), Al Asalah (Originality), and Al Fadilah (Virtue).
Estimates put the number of Salafists in Egypt at between three and five million. They would be contesting Islamist votes with the Muslim Brotherhood, something that observers say might benefit the other parties.
Socialist-leaning parties have existed in Egypt for decades. They always underline the need for social justice and outline the injustices in market economies. Parties like the Unionist Progressive, Nasserite, Free Constitutional Social, Karama, and Egypt's Arab Socialist Party have existed for years, but had problems communicating with the public or holding street rallies before 25 January because of restrictions on their activities.
Lines between the programmes of these parties are blurry. All call for giving the state a bigger role in running the economy, ending privatization and introducing economic policies with a social dimension. They are against private ownership, although their programmes do not speak openly about this. They also call for stronger inter-Arab relations, bringing Egypt back to its traditional leading role in the Arab world, and shunning western political and economic influences.
The leftist parties have fielded hundreds of candidates either on their own or through electoral alliances with other parties.
Despite widespread poverty in Egypt, leftist parties are not very popular, said Mamdouh Qenawi, head of the Free Constitutional Social Party.
"I find this really difficult to understand," Qenawi said. "Poor countries are in dire need of political parties that pay attention to social justice, but Egypt is a different case."
Liberal parties like Al Wafd, one of the oldest in Egypt; the Democratic Front; Tomorrow; and Young Egypt Party encourage private ownership, a bigger role for the private sector in the economy, and minimal state control over economic activities. Most founders of these parties are western-educated or strive to emulate western lines of thought. They put high value on western models of democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, minority rights, and the role of women.
Among all the old liberal parties, Al Wafd is the most popular, having challenged Mubarak's NDP in almost all parliamentary elections over 30 years.
Ayman Nour, founder of the Tomorrow Party, came a distant second to Mubarak in the only competitive presidential elections in 2005. A recent court ruling, however, denied Nour the right to run in any elections for the next five years for fabricating powers of attorney related to his party in 2005.
"The problem with the nation's liberal parties is that most of them existed under Mubarak, but did not do enough to change things," says Sherif Hafez, an independent political analyst. "Egyptians have lost confidence in all the parties that watched Mubarak rule with an iron fist for 30 years, but did nothing to challenge him."
New youth parties
About 10 parties have been formed by thousands of young people who took part in the revolt against Mubarak. Well-educated and ambitious, these leaders are new to Egypt's political life, but say they want to take part in shaping the future. Observers say the revolutionaries need to popularize themselves quickly.
"They need to learn a lesson from the Muslim Brotherhood," said Mona Makram Ebeid, a political science and sociology lecturer. "They need to go to the poor everywhere and tell them that they understand their problems and will find solutions to these problems."
Mustafa Al Naggar, a doctor who was at the forefront of demonstrations against Mubarak, said revolutionary activists know their chances are slim. "But this will not make us despair. I am sure that these revolutionaries will have better chances than any other group in the elections."
Revolutionary parties include the Democratic Generation Party, the Free Egyptians Party, Modern Egypt Party, Egypt the Revolution Party, the Guardians of the Revolution Party, Freedom Party and the Egyptian Revolution Party.
Independents either do not belong to any of the nation's 50 political parties or are party members who decide to run independently. They mostly campaign on promises to solve problems with local councils, pave roads or find jobs for unemployed voters and their families.
Many used to belong to the former ruling National Democratic Party, which was dissolved by the Higher Administrative Court on April 16 , and are rich businessmen.
There are calls from traditional opposition political parties, revolutionary parties and political movements to bar former members of Mubarak's party from politics, at least in the near future. The ruling military council has promised to issue a law preventing these members from running in elections for the next five years, but has yet to do so.
The independents include Mustafa Bakri, a journalist who was critical of Mubarak's party; Nasser Amin, a lawyer who defends survivors of police torture; Gameela Ismail, a TV host who co-founded the Tomorrow Party; and Amr Hamzawy, a political science professor and media commentator who offered strong backing to the revolutionaries.
Too few women
Apart from the liberal Al Wafd Party, which has enlisted 87 women for the elections, few others have gone beyond the one-woman requirement for their election lists and hardly any women are running as independents.
"Political parties have missed a good chance to encourage women into more political participation by putting some of them on their lists for the elections," said Gamal Eid, head of local NGO Arab Network for Human Rights.
Some activists say the ruling military council should have forced political parties to allocate half of the spots on their lists to women. Women make up only 15 percent of the total number of candidates in the election, according to Eid.
"The next parliament will have very minimal representation of women," said Nehad Abul Qomsan, a human rights activist. "This is really embarrassing."
One woman, Gameela Ismail, was downgraded on her party's list simply because of her gender.
"I had to quit and run as an independent because this was humiliating to me," Ismail said. "I had thought I would be top of the list but was surprised when I found myself third to other less-known people," she said in a recent interview with private Dream TV.
Too few Christians
Some Christian politicians have already abstained from running as candidates, which, according to some nationalists, is a severe blow to the ideals of the 25 January Revolution, which was launched by both Muslims and Christians.
"Christians know for sure that the current conditions in Egypt are not conducive to any election success for them," said Naguib Gibrael, a Christian lawyer. "True, Christians have equal rights to their Muslim compatriots, but nothing is encouraging at all."
Gibrael, who heads a local NGO Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, recently conducted a poll on the readiness of the Christians - who make up almost 10 percent of the population - to cast their ballots in the elections. Only 23 percent said they were ready to vote.
A few Christian candidates are participating in the elections. Even Al Wafd has fielded only 36 Christians out of hundreds of candidates.
"Egypt's election culture itself is a major stumbling block for the political rise of the nation's Christians," said Mamdouh Nakhla, a leading rights activist. "Few Muslims will vote for a Christian candidate even if he/she is a good candidate."
On 29 October, a Salafist cleric issued an edict against voting for Christians, saying Muslim voters should not vote for either Christians or Muslim candidates who did not want to apply Islamic law.
About 9,000 judges will supervise the vote, with at least one judge in each polling station, according to Justice Youssri Abdullah, a member of the Electoral Commission.
But some have called for the purging of judges appointed by Mubarak, including the Chief Prosecutor, saying they are unqualified to safeguard Egypt's elections.
In February, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over after Mubarak stepped down,
banned international election observers . Later, the Electoral Commission said local NGOs would also be forbidden from playing a monitoring role.
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