CAIRO — Egyptians prepared to vote today in the first elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a milestone many hoped would usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship. Instead, the polling is already marred by turmoil in the streets and the population is sharply polarized and confused over the nation's direction.
Nine months after the popular uprising that pushed Mubarak out, protesters are back in the streets. This time, they are demanding that military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his council of generals step down immediately, accused of bungling the transition. Nine days of clashes that have left more than 40 dead have heightened fears of violence at polling stations.
More critically, the political crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, which is expected to be dominated by Islamic parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. That could render the parliament that emerges irrelevant.
"We have no idea who we are going to vote for," said Mustafa Attiya Ali, a 50-year-old barber in Cairo. "We don't know any of the candidates, but I and my friends will get together tonight and decide who to vote for."
The election for the 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will be held in three stages ending in January, when voting begins for the 390-seat upper chamber, also in three stages, to conclude in March.
Egypt's military rulers decided to forge ahead with the elections despite the new wave of unrest, scenes starkly reminiscent of the first uprising. On Sunday night in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of the original uprising, a relatively small crowd of a few thousand showed up in a rare rainstorm to keep the round-the-clock protests going.
Egypt has not had a fair or clean election in recent memory. The last parliamentary vote held under Mubarak was in November and December a year ago, and it was so fraudulent, the ruling party won all but a handful of seats.
Tantawi and other generals have pledged to ensure a clean election and troops, and police began deploying on Sunday evening to protect thousands of polling centers. Foreign groups sent missions to witness the vote, but officially the military banned international election observers.
"I have serious concerns about the safety of the ballot boxes staying overnight uncounted at the polling centers," said Hassan Issa, an oil engineer from Alexandria. "They will definitely be rigged," he predicted.
A high turnout will likely benefit the military because the vote is a crucial part of a road map it proposed for a transfer of power to civilian authorities ending with presidential elections before the end of June.
High turnout may also undermine the tens of thousands of antimilitary protesters — many of them see the vote as inconsequential. It could also dilute the Islamist vote because the majority of Egyptians, while pious, prefer separation of religion and politics.
"I want an Islamic state in Egypt, but not like Saudi Arabia or Iran," said Mohammed, a 19-year-old student from Cairo's upscale Mohandiseen district who only wanted his first name published.
Low turnout could give credence to protester claims that the vote lacks relevance and bolster the argument that voting should have been put off until the military returned to its barracks.
The uprising that forced Mubarak out after nearly 30 years in power left his regime almost entirely intact. The weeks that followed saw a series of massive protests that pressured the military into caving in to some of the revolutionaries' demands, including the arrest of Mubarak and his two sons.