Demonstrators returned to Cairo's Tahrir Square Saturday after… (Khaled Elfiqi / EPA )
When two finalists emerged from the first round of Egypt's presidential election — the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and a former prime minister under President Hosni Mubarak — it seemed that the country was on its way to fulfilling at least one of the promises of last year's uprising: a popularly elected head of state. They were not the candidates we would have selected, perhaps, but they offered a clear choice for voters nevertheless. The importance of the election, which will culminate in a runoff on June 16 and 17, should not be obscured by controversy over the verdict in the trial of Mubarak and several associates.
Demonstrators returned toCairo'sTahrir Square on Saturday and Sunday after a court sentenced the 84-year-old former president to life in prison for not stopping violence against protesters, while acquitting six police officials accused of direct responsibility in the deaths of hundreds of protesters. Equally infuriating to many, the court acquitted Mubarak and his two sons of corruption charges. On Tuesday, protesters again returned to the square. Some demanded that Ahmed Shafik, the onetime Mubarak appointee and former air force chief of staff, be disqualified from the ballot in accordance with legislation passed by Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament but never implemented. The other finalist is Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.
Neither the trial nor the election process was completely credible. Some critics argued that Mubarak's fate was engineered from behind the scenes by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is also suspected of stage-managing the exoneration of the other officials. As for the election, several candidates were eliminated by a commission before the first round of balloting, ostensibly for technical reasons, and there have been accusations of irregularities at some polling places. And voters have been handicapped in making their choice by the fact that the president's powers under a new constitution have yet to be defined — a prescription for future meddling by the military.
But these infirmities don't alter the fact that the people of Egypt are on the brink of a momentous choice long denied to them. They will choose not only between two candidates but between two visions of their political future: a government dominated by the religiously oriented Muslim Brotherhood movement or a more pluralist polity. Neither disgust over the outcome of Mubarak's trial nor disappointment about the final choice of candidates justifies apathy or abstention.