The Egyptian election, the country's first since Hosni Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship ended, is procedurally complex. More important, the exercise, which started on November 28, takes place in a profoundly uncertain political climate. It is not a general election; the bodies elected — the 498-seat People's Assembly, and the 270-seat Shura Council (upper house) — will have the task of writing a constitution ahead of the June 2012 presidential election. Both chambers will be elected under a version of the additional member system; the 50-million electorate will choose two-thirds of the members from party lists and one-third by simple majority, but if they do not also pick two independents on their respective ballot papers, their votes will be invalid. In addition, the three-phase process means different regions will vote at different times; the People's Assembly poll, which started on November 28, ends on January 10, 2012, and the Shura vote will last from January 29 to March 11. As many as 40 parties are involved, with over 10,000 candidates contesting. There were huge turnouts on the first two days; reliable initial estimates give a substantial lead to the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Islamist party of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The context, unfortunately, undermines some of the poll's legitimacy. Voting is compulsory; the fine of over $80 for not voting will inflate the turnout unrealistically, among an electorate already suspicious of the system. Secondly, the timing will skew the results; the FJP has by far the biggest party machine, and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has ignored the calls by other groups for more time to organise. In effect, the whole playing field is tilted in favour of the FJP. Many secular parties stopped campaigning in protest against the November killings of 42 protesters in and around Tahrir Square, but the FJP continued campaigning. Neither the party nor its parent body has condemned those killings or the earlier sectarian killings of Copts. Furthermore, the party has a vast, socially conservative, and predominantly rural voter base, whose attitudes it is sure to reflect when the assemblies deliberate on the place of religion in the new constitution. The movement, however, is not monolithic. Some senior figures have quit over the failure to condemn the killings, and a generational divide is also appearing. Above all, the holding of the election itself is an achievement not of the Brotherhood but of the Tahrir Square protesters. They challenged and overthrew one of the most enduring and repressive of the many dictatorships and absolute monarchies in West Asia and North Africa. Egypt is a great nation and its secular democrats can still transform their country and the region.

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