Soldiers maintain order outside of a polling station in Alexandria

Egyptians have been patiently waiting since the early hours of the morning to cast their ballots on the second day of voting for the parliamentary elections, unfazed by the long lines even though their faces reflect their exhaustion with the deteriorating economic situation and continued political instability.

But not all Egyptians attribute such importance to the election.  Protesters in Tahrir Square, now entering the eleventh day of their sit-in, are watching the process skeptically, uncertain that elections will help fulfill their core demands: an end to the SCAF’s military rule and the formation of a civilian "salvation" government. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the other Islamist parties – more organized than their liberal and leftist counterparts – are happy to see elections proceed on time, confident that they will dominate the next parliament and eager to define the rules of the new system on their own terms.

But it is clear from observing the first day of polling that there is a strong desire for elections to succeed, on the part of the Egyptian people as well as the SCAF, whose legitimacy has been severely undermined by the latest clashes in Tahrir Square.  Renewed confrontation between the people and the regime is starting to look like the second wave of the revolution that started last January, and is now continuing alongside the electoral process.

Clashes between demonstrators and the military and security forces subsided noticeably on the eve of elections, with both sides showing restraint in the interest of allowing elections to proceed smoothly. However, the relative lull in protests may be short-lived. Elections could escalate the antagonism and mutual distrust between the SCAF and the major political forces. If the SCAF succeeds in administering reasonably free and fair elections, the result would be to support the military’s preferred transitional scenario, which would allow the SCAF to remain in power until presidential elections in June 2012.

Looking at the breakdown of candidates competing for the 168 People’s Assembly seats that will be contested in the first stage of elections, Islamist parties clearly have a numerical edge over most of their liberal and leftist competitors. Among the 36 parties and coalitions competing in the elections, 7 parties account for 50 percent of the total candidates. Of these 7 parties the three with the most candidates are all Islamist: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), with 135 candidates; 2) al-Wasat, with 112 candidates; 3) and the Salafi Nour Party, with 108 candidates.

In addition to the proportional strength of the Islamist parties in terms of their share of the candidate pool, the well-funded Islamists have a financial edge in disseminating campaign propaganda and are also working to mobilize voters with old-school patronage tactics, such as distributing food and gifts to voters, which continued illegally during the two-day voting process. And while a number of civil parties suspended their campaign activities for nearly a week during the clashes in Tahrir Square, Islamists continued campaigning at full-speed, announcing that they would participate in elections despite the unstable security situation.

While Islamist parties have been campaigning aggressively, civil and liberal parties are expressing concerns that the SCAF may be unable and unwilling to administer fair elections. This week, eleven human rights organizations issued a report documenting a range of human rights violations under military rule, confirming that the SCAF is replicating many of the same repressive methods used by the former regime, such as using the media to smear activists and human rights groups while exaggerating the threat of Islamic fundamentalists as a "scare crow" and only alternative to the authoritarian status quo. This "us-or-them" tactic is the same strategy used by Mubarak to retain the support of the U.S. government and resist calls for reform.

The authority of the elected parliament and its role in forming a new government could induce serious political conflict. Confident that its candidates will dominate today’s elections, the Brotherhood is already maneuvering to shape the scope of the next parliament’s powers.  Brotherhood spokesman Mahmud Ghozlan said on November 27 that the ruling military council "must task the party which gains the biggest number of seats to form the next government."

The SCAF, however, clearly envisions a more limited mandate for the parliament. SCAF member Mamdouh Shahin recently stated that the next People’s Assembly will not have the power to form a government or cast a vote of no confidence, noting that the interim constitution issued in March transferred all executive authority – including the power to appoint and dismiss the cabinet – to the interim military leadership. Following the collective resignation of the Cabinet last week, Mohamed ElBaradei called for the formation of a "national salvation government" and offered to lead it, the SCAF rejected his proposal and instead appointed Kamal Ganzouri, a former official in Mubarak’s government, as the new prime minister.

Despite signs that the SCAF is intent on limiting the powers of the next parliament, voters are still lining up by the thousands to cast their ballots. The dense crowds outside of polling stations are proof that Egyptians are fiercely committed to participating in the political process after nearly six decades of dictatorship, during which the public largely abandoned formal politics out of frustration with the lack of democratic reform.

Magdy Samaan is a freelance journalist and a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute. Mr. Samaan has previously worked as a correspondent for the Egyptian independent newspapers Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry al-Youm as well as Al Jazeera, reporting on politics, religious minorities, and US-Egypt relations.

Photo Credit: Reuters