Turbulent Egypt

From Jack Shenker's story on yesterday's protests/clashes in Guardian:

In Damietta, a port town where the Nile meets the Mediterranean, the army used force to break up mass protests on Sunday which had brought the city to a standstill for several days. Local news reports indicated that at least two protesters were killed and 11 others injured during the violence. Witnesses told the Guardian that the death toll was considerably higher, but this could not be independently confirmed.

"The situation is very dangerous," said Shaaban ElBadahy, a teacher in Damietta. "Protesters have closed off all the ports and roads in the district and no one can enter or leave the city."

Residents were protesting against newly unveiled plans to expand the production of fertiliser in the area. An existing US-Canadian factory has been blamed for a series of environmental disasters including the depletion of local fish stocks, but its owners insist that they meet all relevant safety standards.

In Aswan, police used teargas against protesters angry over the killing of a local boat captain, who was shot dead by a police officer following an argument last week. Amid claims that protesters might try and shut down the power supply running from the Aswan dam to the rest of the country, the authorities declared a curfew and stepped up the security presence in Egypt's southern-most city.

Add to that various clashes (usually because of family vendettas and fights over land) in Upper Egypt, and this paints the impression of a country where there is little policing and the state's ability to control violence is severely hindered. Some of this violence occurred before, but was repressed by the authorities and often did not make it to the media. And some may be related to heightened tensions during the electoral period. But much if it also has to do with the semi-collapse of the police with few attempts by the transitional government to set things right and begin the process of building a new police force.

I'm struck by how, in conversations with various people from the man on the street to politicians, there remains much doubt about whether the elections should be held in such a potentially explosive climate. The media is of course exaggerating this line — Rose al-Youssef, a major weekly magazine, has on its cover the headline "the parliament of blood" with a picture of a bloodied ballot box this week. Past elections, after all, have also been violent.

But there is a much greater sense of the unknown about the upcoming elections, from the question of violence to how various parties will perform to whether the elections will be procedurally correct (there is a high risk that lack of preparation for the number of voters will mean not everyone will get to vote, polling stations will run out of material or otherwise be unable to process all voters). And then there is the still largely unasked question: what happens if, after the first round, the results and/or the tensions prompt a panicking military to cancel the poll? It does not seem likely now, but a lack of preparation makes anything possible. An already turbulent Egypt is entering a period of increased turbulence: fasten your seatbelts.