CAIRO – It started 16 months ago with one hell of a bang -- a downtrodden population took to the streets and shocked the world (and itself) by rising up against its master. Now, on these same streets, it feels like it's all ending with a whimper.
On Saturday and Sunday, Egyptians participated in their fifth national vote since last March -- runoff presidential elections to decide between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq: former Air Force commander, Hosni Mubarak's final prime minister, and the all-purpose symbol of the ancien regime.
It was, to put it bluntly, a thoroughly depressing affair -- one whose tone was seemingly set by a court ruling days before the vote that dissolved parliament on technical grounds and reverted legislative authority back to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Turnout, steady on Saturday, plummeted on the second day. The polls were kept open for an extra two hours on Sunday night, not to accommodate long lines but rather to desperately drag in a few thousand more stragglers and procrastinators. About 90 minutes before polls were set to close at a converted girls school in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, I watched a steady trickle of men hopelessly outnumbered by station workers and police officers.
There were a lot fewer happy voters joyously waving their ink-stained index fingers than in any of the previous election days. Frankly, this never felt like a finger-waving sort of vote. Welcome to the new, apathetic Egypt. Part of it is voter fatigue, part active boycott, and part a widespread disillusionment at the options. The seemingly endless possibilities unleashed by the revolution had somehow come down to yet another showdown between the unreformed regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"I feel like I'm not actually here to vote for something. I'm voting against something horrible. I think a lot of people are doing the same thing today," said Ahmed Adel, a 32-year old carpenter walking out of the polling station in Giza on Sunday evening. He wouldn't say who he voted for (or against). Maybe it didn't matter.
By late afternoon on Monday in Cairo, Morsi was declaring a tight victory and his supporters were already celebrating in Tahrir Square. The official count is still at least a day away, Shafiq's camp was presenting alternate numbers, and some were warning the Brothers to the keep the corks in those sparkling grape juice bottles.
The official numbers, when they do come, will be worthy of extended study for multiple reasons. For starters, the final turnout figure will be far more than just a technical footnote; it will be a psychological and emotional barometer of the national mood and a form of political currency for each camp in this conflict.
The SCAF badly needs a decent turnout figure in order to demonstrate an enduring public mandate and faith in the transitional process so far. Election officials continued to insist through Sunday that the run-off numbers were on par with the 46 percent of registered voters who turned out for the first-round voting last month. But that simply doesn't match up with on-the-scene reports around the country. If the turnout drops below 25 percent for example, it would embolden those critics who would argue that the public has lost faith and enthusiasm in an illegitimate process.
In addition to the boycott camp, there's a parallel protest bloc that needs to be tracked -- the ballot spoilers. Debates in revolutionary circles have centered around this question of boycott-or-spoil for more than a month. This weekend, the spoiler community -- whose political makeup and exact size is unclear -- provided one of the lone bright spots in the process, with a steady stream of cell phone pictures depicting the creative ways that different people had registered their protest votes. (Our personal favorite: VOTE BATMAN!)