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Egypt returns to polls as military cements its control

As Egyptians returned to the polls Saturday to decide between two runoff candidates for president, the ruling military council officially dissolved Parliament, cementing its grip on the government and casting a pall over what was supposed to be Egypt’s first-ever chance to freely elect its leader.

Instead, the Supreme High Election Commission, which is in charge of elections, late Saturday affirmed the decision of the head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, to break up Parliament after a court ruling last week that one-third of the legislative body had been elected illegally. Both the court and commission consist of appointees of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the decision came just as voters were choosing a leader for the last remaining branch of government not officially in military or the former regime’s hands.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which had dominated the Parliament, called Tantawi’s announcement illegal and demanded a referendum on whether Parliament should be dissolved. It was the latest in a series of legal and political moves by Egypt’s dueling powers that have polarized and dispirited the nation on what was supposed to be a buoyant moment: Egyptians electing their president for the first time.

Gone was the jubilation of last month, when Egyptians picked among 13 candidates in the first round of presidential elections. A patina of resignation and fear hung over the process on the first of two days of runoff voting as many voters said that despite the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, the state created by Mubarak remains largely intact.

Many called the process that led to the runoff election a “game.” Turnout was reported to be low, particularly among young people and pro-revolutionary parties, as the choice on the ballot was between two conservatives: Mubarak’s former prime minister and the apparent frontrunner, Ahmed Shafik, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi. The winner is slated to be sworn in July 1.

Besides the court ruling, the military council announced last week that soldiers could arrest civilians for a broad range of violations, marking the return of martial law just weeks after a hated three-decade emergency law had expired.

“This is not in our hands. We have done what we can do,” said a man who wanted to be identified only as Rifat, saying he feared reprisals. The 45-year-old factory worker had voted for Morsi in Helwan, a poor community in southern Cairo.

“I’m worried,” he said. “They said there would be democracy but nothing happened. I hope my vote will count, God willing.”

Election day appearances by the candidates suggested that one had the protection of the state while the other had the will of the people. Shafik was heavily guarded and sneaked into his polling station through a side entrance to avoid being attacked by shoe-throwing voters, as happened last month. Morsi, on the other hand, stood in line like other voters.

Soraya Mahmoud, 62, burst into tears as she considered the prospect of a victory by Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. Mahmoud voted for Morsi in the poor Egyptian neighborhood of Dar Salaam in southeastern Cairo, where the stench of trash piles forced some women to use their veils to cover their noses.

“God willing, I hope the (military council) SCAF will have the same fate as Mubarak,” she said. “They want to bring back the regime. There is martial law now. What’s going on here? The blood of the martyrs will be in vain.”

In Cairo and the port city of Alexandria, voter turnout appeared to be much lower than the first round. Where polling stations opened promptly at 8 a.m. last time, election workers on Saturday appeared more lax about setting up stations. At one station in northern Cairo’s Shubhra neighborhood, poll workers only checked the identity of women in niqab after they dropped their ballots in the box. At another in the southeastern Dar Salaam neighborhood, a Shafik delegate, ostensibly there to monitor the process, instead took part in it, guiding voters to dip their finger in purple ink to confirm they voted.

Some violations were more serious. The Shehab Center for Human Rights, an organization based in Alexandria, alleged that Shafik supporters in several polling stations used what is locally known as the rotating ballot – a pre-filled ballot paper handed to voters outside of the polling station. A popular tactic under the Mubarak regime, it typically promises voters money if they deposit the pre-filled ballot in the ballot box and return their blank ballot back to the partisans outside the polling place.

Judge Farouk Sultan, who heads the election commission, said in a press conference that the commission had discovered 1,000 pre-marked ballots.

Pro-revolutionary parties grudgingly told their supporters to vote for Morsi. But millions of voters who wanted change became their own strategists in front of a ballot. Some who had voted for the revolutionary favorite Hamdeen Sabahi, who captured more than 4 million votes in the first round, said they decided to vote for Shafik because if he did a bad job, it would galvanize people to go back to the streets to protest. Stopping a seemingly power-hungry Muslim Brotherhood was much harder, they said.

Still others said that Egypt now needed a leader guided by Islam to end its economic and security problems. Either way, neither was a ringing endorsement of the candidates.

“I don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood anymore. It is very unfortunate that Morsi and Shafik are the only options now,” said Ahmed Karim, a 45 year-old government employee who once handed out posters of Sabahi in his western Alexandria neighborhood. This time, he voted for Shafik.

Yasser Gouda, 31, a print house worker in the largely Christian Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, said he voted for Shafik because he believed that even though Shafik had served under Mubarak, he couldn’t govern the same way in post-uprising Egypt.

“He won’t be able to govern like Hosni Mubarak did. If he does, he will know what his destiny is. It will be just like Hosni’s,” Gouda said.

Shubra, where many Christians fear living under the Brotherhood, was one of the few places where election judges reported higher turnout.

Not all voters were dismayed. In the upper class neighborhood of Maadi, many voters said they welcomed both the dissolving of parliament and a potential President Shafik. The removal of Mubarak was enough change, they said, and only a known quantity like Shafik could bring about real reform.

“I’m happy that they dissolved Parliament. The Brotherhood had too much power,” Ragwa Ahmed Mohammed, 23, a secretary at a petrol company. “I am not with the revolutionaries at all. There has been enough change.”

Special correspondents Mohannad Sabry in Alexandria, Egypt, and Amina Ismail in Cairo contributed to this report.

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