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!)
In the first round of the presidential vote in late May, around 400,000 ballots were invalidated. It's impossible to know how many of those were mistakenly filled out and how many deliberately ruined. But if that number leaps dramatically this time around, while the overall turnout stays static or drops, we'll know the spoil-your-vote campaign had an impact.
If the numbers do hold and Morsi becomes Egypt's next president, he will inherit an office that has already had its wings clipped a bit. While the votes were being counted this weekend, the SCAF issued a set of non-negotiable amendments to their standing constitutional decree.
Not surprisingly, the amendments would essentially establish the military as a new branch of government, holding checks on the other branches but facing very few balances. The new president will basically not hold oversight powers over the military. What's worse, the SCAF seems to have positioned itself to now potentially oversee the drafting of the new constitution.
The current constituent assembly now faces an undefined deadline to show progress; otherwise, SCAF will unilaterally form its own assembly. Either way, the generals retain the right to veto any aspects of the proposed constitution that are "in opposition to the goals of the revolution or its basic principles ... or the common principles of Egypt's past constitutions."
The declaration itself was not unexpected; people had been predicting it for days. But the timing -- in the middle of a chaotic night of vote-counting late Sunday night -- was either deliberately obnoxious or a sign that the SCAF decided to move to formally weaken the presidency when it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood might win.
Early analysis of the move has been damning. George Washington University professor Nathan Brown issued a harsh assessment, saying the new clauses, if they stand, "really do constitutionalize a military coup."
In a Monday press conference, a pair of SCAF generals declared their motives innocent and all but pleaded with their citizens for a little more patience, tolerance, and trust.
"We'll never get tired of assuring everyone that we will hand over power before the end of June," Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar told a televised news conference. "The army will hand over power to the elected president in a big ceremony at the end-month that the entire world will witness. Egypt is a modern democratic country that upholds all democratic values."
The SCAF's moves didn't seem to dampen the mood of the celebrating Morsi cadres in Tahrir on Monday. But the celebrations could prove short lived. There's a definite confrontation on the horizon regarding the status of the parliament, and a second potential one looming over the drafting of the constitution. That's not to mention, of course, the grim prospect of yet another damn election in a few months if parliament is indeed dragged back to square one. In the end, it's almost become a black comedy: After so many years of wanting something to vote for, it's only taken a few months for Egyptians to be sick and skeptical of the choices in front of them.