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A Glimpse of Real Democracy – But it May Prove too good to be True


Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive? It had rained overnight, but with Egypt's pale and wintry sun came the crowds, lining up outside the polling stations with a patience and an enthusiasm that would put any European nation to shame.

I walked and walked, and some queues were half a mile – perhaps three quarters of a mile – in length, and gone was the old and corrupted voting culture of the past half-century. There were no cops to leer and to intimidate the men and women who arrived to choose their candidates, no one to tip voting papers into the Nile, no fraudulent figures to produce another rubber-stamp parliament. But my question mark on Wordsworth's all too brief enthusiasm for the French Revolution is necessary.

For the Egyptian Revolution has also turned violent, bliss has given way to cynicism, the Muslim Brotherhood cosying up to the military which still – incredibly – thinks it can run the country as a private fiefdom, its shopping malls and banking conglomerates and its fancy villas intact, its private economy untouched by parliamentary control. And the parliament for which those millions of Egyptians voted yesterday – and will again in other governorates across the country until January – cannot form a government or choose ministers. Is this, in other words, a real transition? Or do Mubarak's old pal Field Marshal Tantawi and Mubarak's old crony Kamal Ganzouri – the Mubarakite army commander having just made the Mubarakite ex-Prime Minister a Prime Minister yet again – believe they can stitch the place up, yesterday's poll being another fantasy, real elections for real candidates who will have no power?

That it will be a Muslim Brotherhood parliament there is little doubt. It may call itself the Freedom and Justice Party and it would need a coalition to rule – if the army are not the real rulers – but secular Egypt suffered a death, I suspect, after the January-February revolution. The revolution still exists, albeit that the ranks of the protesters in Tahrir Square yesterday had grown thinner, the photographs of the new November martyrs less obviously displayed, the boycott-the-poll demand naturally silenced.

Up the road, the army's massive wall – more Wailing Wall than West Bank Wall, massive blocks rather than seamless concrete – seals off the crowds from the Interior Ministry. Walls like this have a habit of staying put, of remaining for many weeks longer than their builders intend. And why is the Interior Ministry so precious a building?

Because the torturers are still there? The men who set to work on the creatures whom George W Bush sent for a spot of rendition and genital-electrification, as well as Mubarak's routine opponents? Or because the files are still there, the terrifying evidence of Washington-Cairo collaboration in the "War on Terror"? No way are any nosy politicians, however honourably elected, going to get near this place.

And the baltagi, the drug addict thugs whom the police have been using to abuse and beat the protesters and who have now been seen again on the streets of Cairo, iron coshes in hand; where are they now? They appear among the cops and then vanish, Field Marshal Tantawi's very own Ninth Legion, their existence suddenly erased, their brutality always followed by expressions of sorrow from the "Supreme Council of the Armed Forces" and the familiar childish claims of a "foreign hand".

The cops and the soldiers were on the streets yesterday, the latter watching the former, lounging in their jeeps, smoking, ignored by the queues outside the polling stations. A ban on campaigning 24 hours before the election was broken – the Wafd party men kept stuffing my hands with pamphlets – and ballot papers and ink turned up late at polling stations. But no one complained. Indeed, there was an almost humourous element to the whole affair. Sobhi Ibrahim, an architectural maquette builder, turned up in Tahrir Square with a hat bearing Egyptian flags, hanging from which were four rather sinister white gloves with "Your Voice" written on them. Mr Ibrahim wanted the protesters to vote.

There was Sadeq al-Mowla, the documentary film-maker, insisting that Tantawi and his 18 fellow generals did not have the intelligence to rule – a doubtful claim if ever there was one – and engineer Mohamed Abdul Mohsen, clutching a copy of an opposition paper, Al-Ahzeb, with photographs of Suzanne Mubarak and Ganzouri on page one. "She controlled him – and she still controls him," he lamented. No election is complete without The Plot.

Nor, in Egypt, without party symbols to help the illiterate through the voting papers. They were ingenious and sometimes outrageously funny. On the street posters, you could find lighthouses, fishes, pyramids, lightbulbs, T-shirts, tractors, keys, combs, a scales of justice and – incredibly – fruit blenders. Fruit blenders. Who could have divined a reason for such a symbol? A future life of plenty, perhaps? A mixture of strawberries and bananas, Muslims and Christians, a non-sectarian Egypt? The real question, of course, is just who has his hand on the blender. 

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