CAIRO -- 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 Egypts 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 regimes hands.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which had dominated the Parliament, called Tantawis 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 Egypts 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: Mubaraks former prime minister and the apparent frontrunner, Ahmed Shafik, and the Muslim Brotherhoods 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.
Im 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, Mubaraks 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. Whats going on here? The blood of the martyrs will be in vain.