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At the rally kicking off his campaign for Parliament, Basem Kamel, a core member of the youthful council that helped spur the end of the Mubarak government, wrestled with his stump speech calling for civilian rule.
"We don't want to return to the Islam of the Middle Ages, " said Kamel, his shaved head and white suit setting him apart in Sharabiyya, an impoverished northern Cairo neighbourhood in his campaign district. "I don't want the Islam that preaches I am right and everyone else is an infidel. "
The official campaign for Egypt's first parliamentary elections since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February has started slowly, coinciding with a weeklong break marking the year's main Muslim holiday.
But the campaign's contours have been known for months, namely how a group of upstart, mostly liberal, parties will challenge the well-organised juggernaut of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as remnants of the old government's political machine. The question shadowing the election is whether a robust enough parliament will emerge to fulfill an elusive goal of the revolution: challenging the military's 60-year grip on power.
Given that the young organisers who first summoned protesters to Tahrir Square pulled off a miraculous feat - chasing a president of nearly 30 years from office in 18 days - they were expected to play a leading role in what came next. Reality proved different. Initially, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appeared interested in consulting with the youth coalition. But the youth broke off the meetings after a violent April crackdown on demonstrators.
"We decided it was better to try to establish ourselves on the street than to talk to the military council, " said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a 32-year-old surgeon who is now building his own liberal party, The Awareness Party, and is sitting out these elections.
"The military wanted us for decoration, " he said. "They used us as a source of information, an indicator of the mood on the street, of how the youth will react - but it was not an interactive experience. "
Although they still meet, the 17 or so core members of the Revolution Youth Coalition splintered among factions much like the entire Egyptian political spectrum. Some, including the young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, started parties of their own. Some were absorbed into older groups as mummified political parties struggled to their feet. Some thrived as media stars.
About six of the original members hope to translate their role into a parliamentary seat in the three-stage elections that run through January 10. But they face pronounced scepticism. "We don't care about them, they are just like Mubarak, all they want is money, " groused one heavily-veiled woman dismissively just before Kamel rose to speak. Her main concern was the pervading sense of instability: "We just want things to go back to the way they were. "
Egypt's basic election math goes something like this: Among up to 50 million voters, 20 to 30 per cent are believed to be supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist factions and are sure to vote. Less than 20 per cent, the elite and the Coptic Christian minority, are likely to be committed to civilian rule and are also eager to vote.
Hence the challenge is to win over the roughly 50 per cent of undecided voters - not least in getting them to vote. Attempts to form unified slates derailed, with, by rough count, 14 liberal organisations and 8 Islamist parties fielding candidates.
The effort to convince voters that the stakes are high has been hobbled by the fact that the powers of this next parliament remain increasingly vague as the military council has said it plans to preserve ultimate authority for at least another year.
Almost the entire political spectrum was outraged anew last week by proposals floated by the caretaker government meant to guide the process of writing a new constitution. It had been expected that the new parliament would choose the next cabinet and a 100-member council to write a new constitution, paving the way for presidential elections in a year. But the ruling military council seems determined to dilute that.
(Additional reporting by Dina Saleh Amer and Heba Afify)
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