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Egyptians set to vote under deadly shadow

by Jailan Zayan

CAIRO, November 24, 2011 (AFP) - Egyptians are set to vote on Monday in the first legislative elections since Hosni Mubarak was ousted, but a deadly countdown to the polls has cast a dark shadow over Egypt's first step to democratic rule.

For days, bloody clashes have raged in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in several provinces, pitting police against protesters demanding an end to the rule of the military which took power when Mubarak was toppled.

The clashes, which have left more than 30 people dead according to the health ministry, threatened to derail the process, but military council chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi insisted the elections will proceed as planned on November 28.

Voters face a labyrinthine balloting procedure, through which they will elect 498 candidates in the People's Assembly, with 10 candidates appointed by the country's ruler.

For the three decades of Mubarak's rule, parliament was dominated by his now dissolved National Democratic Party.

But this time around the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the most organised political force in the country, is likely to emerge with a strong bloc through its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party.

According to a transition roadmap laid out by the military, the new assembly is to choose a panel of 100 people tasked with drafting the constitution.

Presidential elections will be set for no later than the end of June 2012.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power when Mubarak was ousted on February 11 and is headed by his long-time defence minister Tantawi, had vowed to hold elections after six months.

The delay infuriated protesters, who have been taking to the streets to demand that the military hand power to a civilian authority.

The Muslim Brotherhood stands to gain from elections taking place on schedule, having survived as the most organised opposition group in Egypt.

Parties that were born during the uprising have struggled to catch up, with some calling for a delay of elections but without SCAF in power.

The military says it will transfer power to a civilian government when a president is elected, but many fear it plans to retain a degree of control, or at least shield itself from accountability through articles in the new constitution.

"I don't think the army wants to stay in power indefinitely, but it wants to guarantee that another Mubarak scenario won't happen," said Nevine Mossaad, professor of political science at Cairo University, in reference to the ex-president who is currently in jail on charges of killing protesters during the uprising.

The November 28 polls will be phased over three rounds, with nine provinces voting in each round.

Two thirds of the seats will be chosen using a closed proportional list, with the remaining third contested by individual candidates.

"People don't understand the electoral system. The official candidate lists were published 10 days before the election. People don't know much about the 40 or so parties that have emerged," Mossaad said.

"The elections have not been well prepared."

Pro-democracy movements have also been campaigning to ban members of Mubarak's regime from running for public office, despite a high court decision allowing them to do so.

The former ruling party drew much of its loyalty from its function as a patronage machine. With around three million members, the NDP controlled parliament, municipalities and businesses.

Dozens of high-profile party members, including former ministers, are currently in jail on corruption charges, but several thousand are believed to be planning to run for public office again.


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