Under a white tent the size of a soccer field, in a show of technological prowess, 350 youths worked dozens of phones Wednesday at the election headquarters of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party. Orders over loudspeakers and clocks hanging on the wall paced their efforts as they collected real-time data on the first round of voting for a new parliament. More senior staff members, in sharp suits and ties, monitored 11 television screens broadcasting Arab and Western coverage of the elections.
"Crossing to the future," promised a slogan on a blue banner at the head of the room.
Across the Egyptian capital, in the downtown area, one of the ruling party's opponents, Ayman Nour, huddled, visibly scared, in a pupil's chair in a dusty classroom that served as a polling station. His followers protected the door. Outside in the courtyard was a rowdy crowd of as many as 40 toughs. They shouted vulgarities about Nour's mother and made like-minded gestures. They tore up his campaign leaflets and tossed them like confetti. At one point, fistfights broke out between them and Nour's outnumbered entourage.
"How is this a free election?" Nour muttered before casting his eyes to the ground.
The vote Wednesday, touted as a benchmark of Egyptian political reform, offered two visions of steps that the Arab world's most populous country is taking toward a more democratic future. One was of a ruling party trying to reinvent itself, even as its young, savvy reformers wrestle with the legacy of the party's decades in power. The other was politics as usual in Egypt, where the National Democratic Party has long relied on a mix of patronage, intimidation, support and voter apathy to monopolize politics.
"These two things exist at the same time," said Mohamed Kamal, 40, a member of the party's powerful Policies Secretariat who has emerged as one of its prominent reformers. "It's the old and the new still around."
The elections will choose 444 members of parliament, which is dominated by the National Democratic Party. Cairo and seven other provinces voted Wednesday; the rest of the country will vote Nov. 20 and Dec. 1.
The vote has won more attention than past elections for what it may reveal about Egypt's political future. Only parties with 5 percent of the seats in parliament will be allowed to put forward candidates in Egypt's next presidential election in 2011. And to a greater degree than the past, the country's Islamic current, embodied by the technically banned Muslim Brotherhood, has forcefully and openly entered the contest, often campaigning under the slogan, "Islam is the solution." Rallies across the capital have drawn thousands, chanting in perfect unison: "Who are we? Who are we? We are the Muslim Brotherhood."
But Egypt's present, characterized by deep cynicism over politics, still shadows these elections. Voter turnout in September's presidential election, in which President Hosni Mubarak faced opposition for the first time, was just 23 percent of 32 million voters. (Mubarak won 89 percent; Nour, his closest rival, won 7 percent.) Ruling party officials, basing projections on exit polls, hope to do better in this vote. But they acknowledge that apathy remains a challenge in a political culture that has withered under half a century of authoritarian government.
In fact, even with a freer vote, the parliamentary landscape may look much the same as it has in the past: dominated by the ruling party, with the Muslim Brotherhood constituting the biggest opposition, and leftist and secular parties struggling on the margins.
"I haven't paid attention to anything about the elections. I can't tell you if they were free and fair. If I went, I could, but I didn't, so I can't," said Ahmed Salah, 36, an engineer walking home from work. "One election doesn't change people's minds."
Even the Brotherhood's formidable organization pales before the National Democratic Party's campaign apparatus. At the election day headquarters, 30 tables were spread over red carpets, each with six phones, an array of cell phones and a computer with Internet access. Starting at 7 a.m., men and some women in their twenties and thirties made as many as 40 calls an hour to polling stations to get updates. Every so often, the loudspeaker asked poll workers to raise their hands if they had finished half their calls, 70 percent of their calls and so on.
"There's no organization in Egypt. Just look in the streets -- the buses, the traffic," said Wael Samer, 20, a poll worker who studies film at Ain Shams University. "But in this election, here, there is."
The ruling party has backed candidates for each of the 444 seats, a list winnowed down from 2,700 prospects. Traditional opposition groups, allied in the National Front for Change, have backed 370 candidates, although they are expected to win only a handful of seats. The Brotherhood has its own slate of about 150 candidates, the most powerful opposition bloc.
But the overwhelming majority of about 5,000 candidates are independents, the group that has posed the biggest challenge in the past to the ruling party's sway.
In 2000, the ruling party won just 38 percent of the seats. The majority went to independents, most of them renegades from the National Democratic Party. They were persuaded to rejoin the party, ensuring its lock on 89 percent of the seats.
"When we got the poor results of the elections in 2000, it was a wake-up call," said Mahmoud Mohieldin, the Egyptian minister of investment and a party leader.
The party adopted the tools of modern politics: polling, national advertising and a campaign stressing slogans of reform, change, the future and a promise of 4.5 million new jobs in six years. The goal this time is a majority without bringing independents back into the fold, and the updated methods have given party workers the confidence that comes with almost ensured success.
"We as a party are not only big and large, but we're more sophisticated than others," Mohieldin said.
The government's opponents call it less sophistication and more intimidation. Opposition and election monitors reported incidents Wednesday of vote-buying, use of state-owned vehicles to transport voters, barring people from polling stations and tampering with ballot boxes.
An independent civil monitoring group, Shayfeencom (We're Watching You), said more than a quarter of complaints had to do with intimidation. In some cases, it said, security forces stood aside as toughs menaced voters.
"It's very bad," said Nour, the former presidential candidate, who has faced months of harassment, court cases against his Tomorrow Party and the death of his father last week. "It's thuggery. It's all gangs and thugs out there."
Nour huddled inside the classroom for about an hour before police finally cleared the courtyard of the menacing crowd. After they left, his torn leaflets littered the ground. Onlookers shook their heads.
"The government doesn't want someone like him," said Saad Abdullah, 37, a Nour supporter. "They only want someone who will say yes, yes, yes. There's no democracy here. It's just slogans."
A friend, Hisham Zahran, interrupted. The men weren't thugs, he said, "they are the men of the National Democratic Party. They are the men of Hosni Mubarak."
Special correspondent Nagwa Hassaan contributed to this report.