Egyptians voted Wednesday in the country's first multi-candidate presidential election, with predictions that President Hosni Mubarak was guaranteed victory by a wide margin because of popular support and his party's undisguised dominance of the polling process.
Mubarak, 77, has been in power for 24 years and was competing for a fifth six-year term against nine candidates. In his prior terms, he was reelected by yes-no referendums in which only his name appeared on the ballot.
At several voting stations in Cairo, election workers and partisans gave the impression of a one-candidate race this time as well. Mubarak posters festooned entrances to the polls, supporters held rallies at the doors, workers from his National Democratic Party (NDP) enticed voters with lotteries offering trips to Mecca and computers as prizes. Other party functionaries handed out registration forms and wore Mubarak buttons and T-shirts.
At a huge air-conditioned tent in a Cairo suburb, Mubarak's son Gamal oversaw hundreds of campaign workers. The workers received election results by telephone from across the country hours before the polls closed and typed the reports on computers. Official numbers were scheduled for release no earlier than Thursday by the Presidential Election Commission.
Turnout appeared to be light but steady in Cairo, although unconfirmed reports suggested a heavier vote in provincial towns.
The presidential balloting in this nation of 76 million has been described as the Arab Middle East's largest experiment in electoral democracy. Politicians across the spectrum have called for open elections after 50 years of autocratic governance. Mubarak was Anwar Sadat's vice president and assumed the presidency after Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
Critics charge that Mubarak's formula for the multi-candidate presidential election was designed to pave the way for the accession to power of Gamal, 41, a lawyer who has coordinated his father's campaign.
The Bush administration has said Egypt is crucial to its goal of encouraging democracy in the Middle East. Administration officials describe Egypt's presidential race as a first step in needed political reform.
In any event, Mubarak supporters all but declared victory. "We had a good candidate," said Mohammed Kamal, a member of the president's campaign team.
Opposition leaders complained about the balloting. "This is not an election," opposition candidate Ayman Nour told supporters. "It would have been wiser for Hosni Mubarak to win by a small margin or even lose, than win in a fabricated way."
Independent monitors were barred from the polls, but some took reports from outside polling stations. Preliminary information indicated that excessive NDP influence at polling stations was the main concern, said Enji Haddad, a member of We Are Watching, a three-month-old human rights organization. "The NDP probably did a disservice to Mubarak," she said.
Haddad said anomalies were inherent in the election law, which kept the vote count secret until it reached the election commission, leaving room for manipulation of the count. "They may even have to shave Mubarak's vote to make the election look legitimate," she said.
Mohammed Sayek, a member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, an independent group, said he witnessed problems with missing names on voting lists and efforts by the NDP to influence voters. But the election was an improvement on past parliamentary votes and presidential referendums, he said. "Police did not interfere, and there seemed to be rejection of people trying to vote without voting cards," he said.
Nonetheless, the NDP was openly campaigning at some polling stations. Two pickup trucks with loudspeakers drove up to the polling station at the Agha Khan School in Cairo, and singers serenaded voters with pro-Mubarak songs.
"Mubarak, never leave us," sang one supporter. Women wearing green Mubarak buttons stopped voters to sign them up for a lottery, which they could participate in by giving their names and voting numbers. Then poll workers, wearing shirts emblazoned with Mubarak's picture and government-issued credential pins, escorted voters inside. Some voters cast ballots and left without daubing their fingers in the indelible ink meant to signify that they had voted. The measure is intended to prevent them from going elsewhere to cast another ballot.
Yahya Wahden, who described himself as an NDP candidate in this November's parliamentary elections, arrived in a compact convertible accompanied by pro-Mubarak singers. He inspected the voting station; politicians were not supposed to enter except to vote, but he said he had already cast his ballot elsewhere. "To make it clear, we are not here to promote Mubarak. Nothing forbids music outside the polling place," he said as he threw kisses to the singers.
At Gamaliya Girls High School, men with NDP badges controlled the official voting lists. They looked up names of voters and handed them forms on which to write their personal information and identification data. The voters then carried the forms to official voting registrars. Mubarak's photograph was on the forms.
"We're just here to help people vote," said Tawfik Sayeed, who was in charge of handing out the forms.
About a dozen muscular men with no apparent job loitered around the voting booths, which were covered by black cloths.
The pro-Mubarak procedures were effectively endorsed by the election commission. When combative Egyptian reporters asked about similar incidents elsewhere in Cairo, a commission spokesman, Osama Attawiya, replied during a news conference, "There is nothing to prevent the ruling party from organizing its own voters."
As for campaigning at the polling stations, he said, "I can't stop people from chanting, even inside the voting area."
Even without such methods, voters interviewed at polling stations were overwhelmingly in favor of Mubarak. "They didn't have to sign me up for a lottery. I was voting for Mubarak anyway. He's done a lot for Egypt," said Salem Eid as he left the Agha Khan school.
On his way to vote, Ashraf Mohammed Abdel Aal, crossing central Tahrir Square accompanied by his two young sons, said Mubarak had given Egypt peace. "My children were born without war. Mubarak has done his job as best as he can," Abdel Aal said.
At the NDP's monitoring tent, burly guards with pistols in their belts kept watch at the front gate. Rugs covered the entrance. Gamal Mubarak, dressed in a blue suit, gazed at a bank of televisions providing a variety of Arab and foreign news reports on the election. The headquarters was alive with phone conversations and people who were tabulating ballots. "North Sinai is voting heavily," one worker told a reporter.
"Minya is 89 percent for Mubarak," another said, referring to a province in the south. He said NDP observers at the polls supplied him with the information, but added he did not know how the numbers were gathered.
Officials reported that violence was minimal during the vote. Scuffles broke out at an opposition protest rally organized by Kifaya, or Enough, an amalgam of human rights groups and political organizations that called for a boycott of the polls. Mubarak's supporters shadowed the 700 Kifaya marchers through downtown Cairo, and fights broke out when the ruling party's backers broke into Kifaya's ranks. Riot police remained behind a fence in Tahrir Square and white-clad police stood by impassively.
Wael Khalil, a Kifaya official, expressed dismay at the vote. Kifaya had demanded that Mubarak step down. "We've lost a battle," he said. "Still we have come a long way. People are speaking out. I think Mubarak is weaker than before, despite this."