“Elections? They’re not important, we are here to protect our revolution,” said Abdel Hamid Salit, one of thousands of people whose demands for an end to military rule threaten to eclipse Egypt’s landmark polls.
Voters have been called to cast their ballots on Monday in the first legislative elections since a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak in February and left his defence minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in charge.
But deadly clashes that erupted a week ago between police and protesters launched a bloody countdown to the election and left the demonstrators in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square furious that the vote was still going ahead.
“People here are not concerned with the vote, they want a dignified life and freedom,” said Salit, a 65-year-old engineer.
“Elections or not, we will not let our revolution be stolen,” he told AFP.
Banners festooned across the square urge Egyptians to protect the revolution that on February 11 brought an end to Mubarak’s 30-year-rule.
“The revolution has spoken, the elections cannot threaten it” and “Elections are diverting attention!” they read.
Many protesters are adamant that they will boycott the poll.
“I will not vote,” said Mustafa Shaath, a 30-year-old researcher. “How do you want me to vote, when the parliament will have no powers if the military is still in charge?
“The situation is messy — we don’t want elections to be held in these circumstances,” said Shaath.
Tantawi, the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has vowed to hand power to a civilian authority when a president is elected by June 2012.
But for a week protesters have been massing on the square, determined to bring down Tantawi, just like they did his former boss Mubarak 10 months ago.
In a bid to placate them, Tantawi on Friday said he had tasked Kamal al-Ganzuri, 78, with forming a new cabinet after the resignation of prime minister Essam Sharaf’s government last week.
But the appointment of Ganzuri — who served as Mubarak’s premier from 1996 to 1999 — failed to satisfy the protesters’ demands for change.
“Holding elections now, it’s like putting a bandage on a wound without cleaning it,” said translator Doaa Khamis, 38, as she slammed the “repressive” measures of the interior ministry.
“It’s as if there had never been a revolution,” she said, standing by her sister Aya, 24, and holding up an “Anti-Election” sign.
“We’re going to stay in the same vicious circle because the corrupt officials of the former regime are still around, including in the election,” said Aya.
The sisters represent the frustrated youth of Tahrir who feel their revolution risks being stolen from them by old regime faces who are still in charge.
For the three decades of Mubarak’s rule, parliament was dominated by his now dissolved National Democratic Party. Former party members have shed their NDP coats and joined other parties or are running as independents in the election.
Voters face a labyrinthine balloting procedure, through which they will elect 498 candidates in the People’s Assembly, with 10 candidates appointed by the country’s ruler.
Protesters are also furious that elections are taking place before those responsible for the deaths of 42 people during the week-long clashes between police and protesters are held accountable.
“We have suspended our campaign,” said Salwa Haggag of the Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of secular parties that includes the Free Egyptians headed by telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
“How do you want us to conduct a campaign while the blood is flowing on the streets?” Haggag asked, without saying whether the bloc had withdrawn from the election.
But despite their objection to the elections, many feel that an all-out boycott would infuriate the silent majority, which is torn between completing the revolution and maintaining stability.
One protester, musician Omar Karim, summed up the mood in Tahrir Square.
“At this point it is a moral duty to boycott elections. The problem is that unless everybody does so, it’s a political imperative to vote,” he said.