'People care now' - Egyptians on why they'll vote

By Glen Johnson in Cairo

Hasan Mosbah sat in front an old computer monitor watching videos of Egyptian youth clashing with police officers. The 60-year-old, owner of a small café down a dusty Alexandria side street, was having trouble deciding who to vote for.

It was near noon in the coastal city - three hours north of Cairo - and polls had been open for four hours. People had gathered just after dawn, with queues stretching hundreds of meters from polling stations dotted throughout the city.

"This is my first free election," Mosbah said.

"I have no objection to the religious parties, but many people have made politics the same as religion. They say that if you are a Muslim you must vote for the Islamists and if you are secular, you must vote for the secularists. I'll vote for I want."

The elections, the first of a staggered three-stage process to be completed in January which will see the formation of a 498-seat parliament, have pitted secular forces against Islamist parties in a struggle which underlines divisions in Egyptian society while mirroring the broader dynamics and tensions at play in the Middle East.

The outcome of Egypt's parliamentary elections - in which the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), looks likely to dominate - may well set the tone for the rest of the region.

For Mosbah, a devout Muslim wearing a moth-bitten grey vest and old dress pants, his white hair ruffled and cigarette sticking out of his mouth, religion was important but Islam meant different things to different people and should be separate from politics.

In the end Mosbah decided to cast his list vote for the Free Egyptians Party - a far right and secular party, established in part by a prominent Coptic Christian and telecommunications magnate, Naguib Sawiris.

"Naguib is a very good, honest man. We are all Egyptians; whether Christian or Muslim, it should not matter."

At polling stations throughout the city, the mood was a mix of apprehension and optimism. Women wearing the niqab (veil) and Saudi abayya (a loose black cloak) talked with young women sporting modern hair-cuts and wearing skinny jeans.

Men debated how many votes candidates' would attract, but conversation inadvertently harked back to the heady moments of January's uprising, which led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and the elections now taking place across the country.

Amira Mohammed had queued for several hours in Alexandria's Sidi Gaber distict. But that did not deter her. She believed her vote mattered and, like many Egyptians, saw this as a welcome change from times past, when Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) thugs would roam around polling stations beating people while instructing them to vote NDP.

"I support the FJP. They have waited a long time for this. Some people think they will force Sharia Law on to people, but their main goal is to develop Egypt and bring prosperity to the people. It's time to give the Brotherhood a chance."

Occasionally, a picture of Khaled Saeed would punctuate the campaign propaganda blowing around Alexandria's streets. Saeed remains one of Alexandria's most remembered 'shohda' (martyrs). His death in 2010 - beaten and mutilated by police officers - helped galvanize anti-regime sentiment and mobilize thousands of people in the lead up to January's uprising.

The elections were characterized by the speed they took place, the emergence of Salafi (ultra-orthodox, literalist Islam) political parties and controversy surrounding former NDP members running for office, and came on the back of growing disillusionment with Egypt's military rulers, accused - by a still nascent movement - of entrenching its power and undermining Egypt's democratic transition.

Regardless, people relished the opportunity to meaningfully participate in politics. Young men walked up and down queues handing out campaign propaganda - clearly violating election regulations - while banners hung from top-floor windows above walls plastered with candidates' posters. The plurality of candidates and parties served to highlight both the country's divisions and its democratic potential.

Omar Moktar, a student in Alexandria, said that such open debate and engagement with politics under Mubarak was not possible.

"People care now. Before, we always knew that the NDP would get 99 percent of the vote, so there was no reason to care. We say that denial is the first sign of depression - under Mubarak, we were denied everything."

- Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist

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