Egyptians turn out in droves for historic vote

November 28, 2011

Egyptians voted in surprisingly large numbers Monday, looking past more than a week of violence and political unrest to show their faith that ballots cast in the first election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak could put their country on the path to democratic rule.

The first day of Egypt’s landmark parliamentary elections unfolded with relatively few snags, even as voters overwhelmed polling stations across nine of the country’s 27 provinces. State television reported that, based on early-morning participation, authorities expected an 80 percent turnout in the areas voting Monday. The rest of the nation will vote during the coming weeks.

The strong turnout and smooth voting in a country with a long history of vote-rigging and electoral violence were a boost for Egypt’s military leaders, who promised a quick transition to civilian rule after they took control of the country in February but have since sent mixed signals about their commitment to a democratic transition. And the voting suggested that, despite 10 days of protests by Egyptians demanding the immediate departure of the generals, large numbers were willing to participate in a military-run transition — however imperfect.

“The people in Tahrir Square, yes, they are Egyptian, but they are not the only Egyptians in this country,” said Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a retired general and military analyst, who maintained that the ruling generals have done a good job under challenging circumstances. The military chiefs “proved that they are responsible,” he said.

By afternoon, even some of the protesters who have returned in recent days to the square in central Cairo, the heart of the uprising against Mubarak, were leaving in shifts, taking their turns in the voting booth.

Preliminary results for the provinces that began voting Monday were not expected until the completion of the second day of balloting Tuesday. But voters and analysts said they expect Islamist parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, to outperform their liberal competitors, who are scattered and less organized — a shift in power replicated in other countries shaken by the Arab Spring.

The Brotherhood, which Mubarak tolerated only as a weak political opposition, showcased its formidable organizational skills Monday. Outside polling stations, Freedom and Justice volunteers set up information tables to guide voters; others mobilized the party’s constituencies across the country.

Freedom and Justice’s vice president, Essam el-Erian, said party officials were optimistic about the first day of voting.

“It was a calm day, no violence, no confrontation, and this was unexpected,” he said Monday night, shortly after the polls closed. “I think we are in the front.”

Supporters of the Nour party, which is run by ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims, also appeared to vote in large numbers, leaving many here to assume that the democratization of Egypt will bring a government far more conservative than Mubarak’s.

“We don’t know where they would take us if they won the most seats,” said electrician Sami Sayed Darwish, 58, who said he voted for liberals in an effort to offset the expected strong showing by the Islamists. “We are a moderate Islamic state, and they are strict.”

Hope and misgivings

The Monday vote marked the start of a three-month process to form what Egyptians hope will be the first legitimately elected parliament in the country’s history. Until Mubarak’s ouster, his National Democratic Party monopolized power, but elections, though rigged, gave the country’s autocratic system a veneer of democracy.

The last vote under Mubarak was held exactly a year ago, when the regime cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of the polling and fixed the vote so flagrantly that the Islamist party went from controlling 20 percent of the seats in parliament to none.

The prospect of casting ballots in a fair election drew many first-time voters to the polls Monday.

“I know these are going to be fair elections,” Tamer Gamal, 32, said as he stood in a long line in the working-class district of Shubra in Cairo. “We feel that the Egyptian vote now has weight.”

But many who voted Monday expressed mixed feelings about the process and misgivings about the future.

Mohammed Kenawi, a doctor who treated people wounded by riot police during clashes last week in Tahrir Square, said the recent unrest soured what would have been a joyous day. He had planned to vote for the Brotherhood’s party, he said, but changed his mind after it declined to join protesters calling for a quick end to military rule. Instead, he voted for candidates affiliated with groups that emerged from the revolution.

“This election came on the dead bodies of our martyrs,” Kenawi said. “We are still in need of a revolution.”

Despite calls by some activists for a boycott to protest the recent police crackdown, which killed at least 42 people, the number of holdouts appeared to be small. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent activist and blogger, spent the day between sit-ins at the cabinet building and at Tahrir Square, refusing to participate in an election he called a “circus.”

“This is not the revolution’s parliament,” he said. “I will not vote at a polling station guarded by the police that have been killing us for nine months.”

Role of observers

Although the Egyptian government had said that it would not allow foreign monitors to observe the polls, election experts who nonetheless flew to Egypt for the vote said they received a surprisingly warm welcome.

“It was an open question until this morning,” said Les Campbell, the National Democratic Institute’s director for Middle East and North Africa programs, who was among the foreign observers in Cairo. “We’ve gotten the normal access observers would get anywhere else. I would say it was a pleasant surprise.”

A team of well-regarded Egyptian electoral observers issued a report Monday documenting incidents of violence and irregularities. The more than 400 observers found that one-third of polling stations opened more than an hour late, according to Project Rakeeb. Five percent opened more than four hours late because of missing supplies or personnel, the report said. The team said that 19 percent of its accredited observers were not allowed into polling stations and that in two cases observers were assaulted as they were kicked out.

Observers documented eight incidents of violence, including clashes between supporters of the Nour party and the liberal, leftist Egyptian Bloc in the coastal city of Alexandria. The experts also noted violations of a moratorium on campaigning 24 hours before election day, most prominently from the Freedom and Justice Party.

On Monday, voters had to choose a political slate as well as two candidates running as independents.

The election for the 498-seat People’s Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament, will last through January, with three stages of voting. Voters will then choose the 390-seat Shura Council, the upper chamber, in three stages of voting that will end in March.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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