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Ahead of Egypt’s vote, parties and skepticism grow

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CAIRO » At the rally kicking off his campaign for Parliament, Basem Kamel, a core member of the youthful council that helped spur the end of the Mubarak government, wrestled with his stump speech calling for civilian rule.

"We don’t want to return to the Islam of the Middle Ages," said Kamel, his shaved head and white suit setting him apart in drab Sharabiyya, an impoverished northern Cairo neighborhood in his campaign district. "I don’t want the Islam that preaches I am right and everyone else is an infidel."

The official campaign for Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February has started slowly, coinciding with a weeklong break marking the year’s main Muslim holiday.

But the campaign’s contours have been known for months, namely how a group of upstart, mostly liberal parties will challenge the well-organized juggernaut of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as remnants of the old government’s political machine. The question shadowing the election is whether a robust enough Parliament will emerge to fulfill an elusive goal of the revolution: challenging the military’s 60-year grip on power.

Given that the young organizers who first summoned protesters to Tahrir Square pulled off a miraculous feat — chasing a president of nearly 30 years from office in 18 days — they were expected to play a leading role in what came next.

Reality proved different. Initially, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appeared interested in consulting with the youth coalition. But the youths broke off the meetings after a violent April crackdown on demonstrators.

"We decided it was better to try to establish ourselves on the street than to talk to the military council," said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a 32-year-old surgeon who is now building his own liberal party, The Awareness Party, and is sitting out these elections.

"The military wanted us for decoration," he said. "They used us as a source of information, an indicator of the mood on the street, of how the youth will react — but it was not an interactive experience."

Although they still meet, the 17 or so core members of the Revolution Youth Coalition splintered among factions much like the entire Egyptian political spectrum. Some, including the young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, started parties of their own. Some were absorbed into older groups as mummified political parties struggled to their feet. Some thrived as media stars.

"They were all beggars before the revolution," said Mohamed Salah, an acerbic columnist for the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, summarizing a common perception. "Now half of them are TV talk-show hosts while the other half appear on their shows as paid guests, while the rest of the population cannot find money to buy food."

About six of the original members hope to translate their role into a parliamentary seat in the three-stage elections that run through Jan. 10. But they face pronounced skepticism.

"We don’t care about them, they are just like Mubarak, all they want is money," groused one heavily veiled woman dismissively just before Kamel rose to speak.

The campaign rally took place in an open canvas tent squeezed between her ramshackle apartment building and a high wall blocking railroad tracks. Her main concern was the pervading sense of instability: "We just want things to go back the way they were."

Kamel is running for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, among the strongest liberal groups with its mix of Muslims and Coptic Christians, which argues seriously that Egypt might emulate Sweden. The rally played on nostalgia for better days by not starting with the current martial national anthem, but a more romantic version from the 1920s with lines like "I am an Egyptian built by those who built the everlasting pyramids."

Kamel noted in an interview that he could not run as a revolutionary. (The 42-year-old architect was pushing the youth envelope, but because Mubarak was 82, people half his age were deemed youthful.)

"They know that we were somehow pioneers in this, but now is not the time to say that," he explained. "I have to speak about the new constitution, about education, health care and the environment."

Still, his speech referred to those halcyon days.

"In the square we were one hand in the revolution and no one asked if the other prayed or was a believer or not," Kamel said. "The current regime wants to divide us so we are weak and can be easily ruled."

He kept repeating the need for a "civilian" state, or "madani" in Arabic, because the religious portray the word "almani" or "secular" as something Western and immoral.

After the rally, potential voters found that Kamel came off as more earnest than electric, wishing that he had offered specific prescriptions for solving this nation’s complicated social and economic problems.

Egypt’s basic election math plays out as such: Among up to 50 million voters, 20 to 30 percent are believed to be committed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist factions and are sure to vote. Less than 20 percent, the elite and the Coptic Christian minority, are likely to be committed to civilian rule and are also eager to vote.

Hence the challenge is to win over the roughly 50 percent of undecided voters—not least in getting them to vote. Attempts to form unified slates derailed, with, by rough count, 14 liberal organizations and eight Islamist parties fielding candidates. Standing out among more than 6,000 candidates for 498 seats is difficult.

"The only difference between the liberals is that one has curly black hair and the other is bald," Salah deadpanned. Despite the splintering of the Islamist parties into factions, analysts estimate that the Muslim Brotherhood still commands a hefty 70 percent or so of the Islamist vote. Given its widespread penetration and organization into individual neighborhoods through clinics and social services, it will likely do well, particularly if turnout is low. In Tunis last month, the main Islamic faction took more than 40 percent while the strongest liberal group followed with 30 percent.

The effort to convince voters that the stakes are high has been hobbled by the fact that the powers of this next Parliament remain increasingly vague as the military council has said it plans to preserve ultimate authority for at least another year.

Almost the entire political spectrum was outraged anew last week by proposals floated by the caretaker government meant to guide the process of writing a new constitution. It had been expected that the new Parliament would choose the next cabinet and a 100-member council to write a new constitution, paving the way for presidential elections in a year.

But the ruling military council seems determined to dilute that. First, nothing obliges it to pick the next ministers from the winners. Second, the proposed constitutional guidelines suggest that the generals will pick 80 members of the council, leaving just 20 from the new Parliament, and put the military outside civilian oversight.

The Muslim Brotherhood in particular cried foul, accusing the military of trying to stymie the organization’s anticipated strong role in shaping the next constitution.

In their attacks on the military council, both the Brotherhood and liberal candidates like Kamel try gingerly to draw a line between the ruling generals and the armed forces themselves, which remain broadly popular as Egypt’s last stable pillar.

"The regime has still not changed, the revolution is still not complete," Kamel said in his speech. "Every Egyptian has a role now, it might be a small or large one but nevertheless it’s a role and each Egyptian must take it."

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