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Egypt’s Rulers Face Unrest, Crumbling Economy as Vote Begins

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Egypt’s Army Rulers Face Unrest, Crumbling Economy as Polls
An Egyptian man carries an electoral box into a polling station at a school in Cairo, Egypt. The vote, which may make or break the transition to democracy in this U.S. ally, is overshadowed by clashes that have killed 43 people in the past week. Phoptographer: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Egyptians started to vote today in the first election since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak as foreign investors abandon the country and a protest movement against the ruling generals becomes entrenched.

Voting for the lower house of parliament in the Arab world’s most-populous country will take place in stages, corresponding to three sets of governorates, with the last vote slated for January. The first stage lasts for two days and initial results may be published Nov. 30. Final results are due by Jan. 13. The Freedom and Justice Party, set up by Egypt’s once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, is expected to emerge as one of the largest blocs in the parliament.

The run-up to the vote, which may make or break the transition to democracy, has been overshadowed by clashes that have killed 43 people in the past week. Protesters accuse the ruling military council of stifling freedoms while failing to restore security or revive an economy growing at the slowest pace in more than a decade. Thousands have gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the past 10 days demanding that the generals step down. The army says it won’t cede power before presidential elections due by the end of June.

Still, turnout so far has been “beyond expectations,” Abdel Moez Ibrahim, head of the election commission, said at a Cairo press conference.

‘Now It’s Different’

In the affluent Cairo suburb of Zamalek, hundreds of women queued to vote in a line that snaked round several blocks. Many were dressed in jeans and western fashions, while a few sported Islamic-style head coverings, and some were accompanied by male friends or relatives.

“Before, I didn’t have confidence that my vote would count, now it’s different,” said Moustafa Abbas, 29, outside a polling station in the Manial district. “The military council did a good job managing the elections.”

Protesters in Tahrir square, though, were denouncing army rule as voters streamed into polling stations. “Freedom, where are you?” some chanted. “Leave, leave!” they yelled, referring to Tantawi.

Mohammed Mahmoud street off the square, where much of the past week’s fighting took place, has been closed off. Abdel Rahman el-Gazzar is one of the volunteers manning the entrance. “I can’t find anyone who deserves my vote,” he said. “The military council wants this election so it can turn the people against protesters in Tahrir.”

‘Living in Fear’

The latest wave of protests and fighting prompted the government’s resignation, and the generals last week appointed Kamal el-Ganzouri as prime minister. El-Ganzouri said today that he may form a new Cabinet by the end of the week.

The Muslim Brotherhood has stayed away from most recent protests to focus on canvassing. Founded in 1928, the group’s organizational skills, support networks and name-recognition may help give it an edge over the secular youth who were at the forefront of the leaderless anti-Mubarak revolt.

Islamist groups have already won elections in Morocco and Tunisia, where the region’s wave of uprisings began a year ago. Today’s vote may provide the first real gauge of the popularity of the Brotherhood and Egypt’s other political groups.

“The dictators were suppressing the Islamic current,” said Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. “When the people in this region get some space and freedom, they choose Islamists.”

‘Closer to God’

Near a polling station in Cairo’s Shobra district, Fatma Azzam, who works at the Health Ministry, displayed the ink stain on her finger that shows she voted, and said it’s time to give the movement a chance. Sewage water was flowing on a nearby street and garbage spilled out of the bins.

“We’ve tried secularism and liberalism for decades, let’s vote Islamist and get closer to God,” Azzam said. “We want development, industries and agriculture. If they don’t deliver, I won’t give them my vote again. But I’m sure they will.”

The unrest in Egypt has hurt the economy, as tourists have shunned the country and industrial production has been hit by strikes. Gross domestic product grew 1.8 percent in the fiscal year through June, the slowest in at least a decade.

The country’s long-term foreign sovereign credit rating was cut one level to B+, four levels below investment grade, at Standard & Poor’s on Nov. 24. The yield on dollar bonds due April 2020 climbed 82 basis points last week to 6.97 percent, the highest since January. The benchmark stock index is down 47 percent this year.

Christian Concerns

The Freedom and Justice party adopts a largely pro-market platform, supporting private enterprise and a stock market. The group said it would create jobs by directing more investment than the previous regime did toward industries, agriculture and information technology, while trimming the budget deficit.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have expressed concerns about a Brotherhood role in government.

Under Mubarak, Nevine Keroless was a member of the so-called “couch party,” or silent majority, never casting a ballot. Not only is the 32-year-old Christian pharmacist voting today, she has also recruited her mother, father and hairdresser to head to the polls.

“We don’t want the Brotherhood to score a landslide victory,” she said. “I don’t believe that they’re showing their true colors. I don’t think they will give us our rights.”

‘Premature Autumn’

Antonius Habib, a Coptic Catholic priest, said after casting his vote that Egypt’s Christians need to make their voice heard in the election. “We as Christians are afraid of Islamists,” he said. “I’m scared to lose my freedom. Maybe I won’t be able to go out in the streets dressed like this, or to wear this,” he said, clutching the metal cross hanging around his neck.

The outcome of the election may resonate beyond Egypt’s borders, given the country’s historical leadership role among Arab states.

“If the election in Egypt succeeds, it will put the country on the path toward democracy and serve as a model for the region,” said Emad Gad, an analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo and a parliamentary candidate. “If it fails and is marred by security problems, it will be a recipe for unrest and the Arab Spring will give way to a premature autumn.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mariam Fam in Cairo at mfam1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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