Middle East

Egypt divided ahead of crucial elections

Protest in Tahrir Square. 24 Nov 2011
Image caption Protesters in Tahrir Square have been chanting for the military council's downfall

At a live televised news conference, a uniformed general confidently asserts that parliamentary elections can and will go ahead as planned.

A few hours later an idealistic young liberal politician explains why a boycott of the polls is the only way to safeguard the transition to democracy.

Egypt's slow-motion revolution has taken a confusing turn - in which no-one is quite playing the role you would expect.

The army, which has wielded power for decades, is now working to assure a rather sceptical public that it has no desire to cling to power any more.

Many pro-democracy protesters are wary. They don't believe that any process presided over by the army will be fair and they don't accept that the army has the moral or political authority to say when and in what circumstances Egypt should vote.

The generals who were wheeled out for that news conference on national television were mild in their demeanour but unequivocal in their determination.

One of them - Mamdouh Shaheen - said simply: "The elections will be on time."

He added that if the armed forces were to stand down before voting took place it would be a betrayal.

This is high-minded stuff from high-ranking military officers who served without any apparent moral problems through long years when Egypt had little or no democracy.

The real reasons behind their sudden enthusiasm for party politics are a little less noble.

First, without a figurehead like Hosni Mubarak to act as a front-man for military power, the army suddenly has direct day-to-day responsibility for Egyptian life. And it doesn't like it.

Frustrations over the speed of the democratic transition and over unemployment, poverty and corruption are all placed squarely at their door.

Then there is pressure from the US government which contributes more than a billion dollars a year directly to Egypt's armed forces. It, too, wants democracy.

Chaotic energy

And of course the military probably feels it can preserve its huge influence and hidden power under any new political system - that means protecting itself from the scrutiny of civilian politicians and protecting its budget.

To many democracy campaigners maintaining a passionate vigil in the midst of the noisy, chaotic energy of Tahrir Square this is all deeply worrying stuff.

They feel they are the conscience of the revolution and they don't believe that the army has any right to preside over Egypt's transition - after all, they argue, the current military leadership is just a continuation of the old Mubarak regime, a symbol of everything that Egypt is making a transition from.

Some are preparing to boycott the elections arguing that they have no legitimacy and no credibility.

That is a high-risk strategy. Candidates who choose not to run may find themselves sidelined if most people vote and are then happy enough with how the process, which starts next week, is managed.

One of the young liberals who says he won't run is Ahmed Naguib.

Image caption Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi denies the army wants to hold on to power

He told me: "If I accept this coming parliament as it is, under the rule of the military, then I am participating in the biggest forgery against real democracy in Egypt. This is not real democracy - it's forged, fake democracy."

The military has played its hand in all this with surprising skill when you consider its lack of feeling for democracy.

First, it has held talks with the Muslim Brotherhood - the opposition group it helped to persecute through the long years when it was illegal.

The Brotherhood is participating in next week's elections, not this week's protests.

As the largest and best-organised opposition grouping they will give the process a degree of credibility at least - and their official absence from Tahrir Square this week robs the protests of some momentum.

The generals have also finally tried to reach out to the opposition - speaking of their regret for the loss of life in the protests.

That may not be enough to bring around the hardline demonstrators in Tahrir Square, but it may be enough to persuade some liberals that it is worth considering taking part in the elections.

So with its generals who want elections and its liberals who don't, Egypt is enjoying a rather complex build-up to next week's poll.

Once the process begins it will become more complex still. Egyptians will vote in three staggered waves spread over nearly four months using a combination of first-past-the-post counting and proportional representation so final results won't emerge until next year.

But Monday still promises to be a dramatic day. The question of who takes part is as important as the question of who eventually wins.