Leading article: A shaky step towards democracy

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When Hosni Mubarak fled Cairo in February, the outside world was quick to claim that a new dawn had broken in the most important country in the Arab world; too quick, perhaps. As Egypt heads into two days of parliamentary elections today, the first real test of public opinion since Mubarak's overthrow, blood is being shed almost daily in Tahrir Square and the outlook for the Arab Spring in Egypt is unclear.

The elections themselves are complicated, involving a sequence of polls for the lower and upper houses of parliament as well as for the presidency, a labyrinthine process that may have the effect of deterring all but the most enthusiastic from taking full part. Some parties, meanwhile, mainly of a liberal leaning, have pulled out of the election, protesting against the refusal of the military council to delay holding polls until the country is under civilian control. These are the people who have been occupying Tahrir Square, denouncing the military council's head, Field Marshal Tantawi, and the interim Prime Minister, a septuagenarian Mubarak-era relic, Kamal el-Ganzouri.

Having failed to get their way, these self-proclaimed guardians of the revolutionary flame now risk being pushed to the political margins. The two most powerful political forces in the country, the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the assorted political heirs to the Mubarak regime, have distanced themselves from the protests and from attacks on the army. Fully prepared for today's start to the elections, they look set to sweep the board.

None of this bodes well. Since moderate Islamists won the elections in Tunisia, that country has settled down, mainly because the democratic legitimacy of the new government is not in question. As many Tunisians have since said, the real winner there was the democratic process.

But if significant sections of the Egyptian population, including the most ardent defenders of the February revolution, feel cheated by the end of this week, violence in Cairo may well worsen. More than 40 people died in the capital in recent clashes with the police and army. It would be tragic if a free election in Egypt deepened existing divisions instead of healing them.

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