Egypt, with its restrictions on free speech and organization, remains a long way from being a democracy. But the government made good on its promises Wednesday to open up its political system.
Unlike Egypt's last parliamentary elections in 2000, when voters for rivals of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were beaten by the police and NDP thugs, physically restrained from entering polling booths and hundreds of opposition activists were arrested, there were few if any such incidents on Wednesday. But turnout was low, underscoring the fact that most Egyptians don't yet see a strong connection between voting and improving their lives.
In polling stations across Cairo, citizens had relatively unimpeded access to voting booths, and Egyptian political analysts projected that opposition groups, led by the officially banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, would almost certainly expand their paltry share of 12 percent of seats in the 454 member parliament.
Goma al-Durgadi says the vote has gone so well that it's making him nervous. The Muslim Brotherhood poll watcher in Cairo's Dokki district looks around as voters and officials bustle about and journalists and observers come and go with nary a glance at their papers, let alone outright harassment, from security officials.
"The difference is night and day - I can't believe it,'' he says, cracking a grin. "Maybe the NDP has something nasty in store for later."
Dokki this year, as five years ago, featured a showdown between a senior leader of the Brotherhood and the NDP incumbent Amal Osman, an aging former senior government minister. Defeat for the NDP would be a major embarrassment, but Mr. Durgadi just scratches his head when asked if he has any complaints.
"We're completely amazed," he says.
Five years ago, Durgadi watched from the street outside this same polling center as it was surrounded by police and thugs who beat Brotherhood supporters until they left without voting. For much of the day, exclusive access was provided to supporters of the NDP. They would arrive on buses, and the police phalanx would part just long enough to allow them into the courtyard.
Journalists on the scene also had their equipment stolen. Photographer Norbert Schiller wrote at the time that his cameras were taken and smashed just outside the polling center by a knife-wielding mob, just a few feet away from a milling group of police, who declined to intervene.
The improvements do not mean that Egypt's elections are fully fair. At three polling places visited by this paper, opposition groups complained that votes were being bought by the NDP. In Dokki, a van-load of rural women was escorted to the polls by an NDP official, who provided them with voter registration numbers on the spot, a violation of Egypt's electoral rules.
Egypt's first ever presidential elections, held in September, were also found to be tainted by an independent judicial review, published earlier this week. So while it's likely this election was more clean than five years ago, problems will almost certainly be found.
In Cairo's Bab al-Shariya neighborhood, where the incumbent is opposition leader Ayman Nour, officials said plain-clothes policemen made a point of following the candidate while he made the rounds of barbershops and cafes in recent weeks, warning voters after he left to stay home.
"We have lots of complaints,'' says Gameela Ismail, Mr. Nour's wife. "People who come to vote here fear if they do the wrong thing, their sons could end up in jail."
Nour has been a persistent pebble in the regime's shoe over the past year, attacking the 24-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak and garnering world headlines in the process. The government appears to be pulling out all the stops to defeat him, running Col. Yahya Wahda of the feared state security service against him.
Rules prohibit serving state security officers from running; Mr. Wahda resigned about three weeks ago.
In some of the polling places in Nour's district, there was a heavy plain-clothes state-security presence, and members of Nour's party, Al-Ghad, complained they'd been threatened into leaving.
Egypt's elections are being held in three rounds, spaced about 10 days apart. The elections this year, as they were for the first time in 2000, are being supervised by the nation's judges. Since there are about three times as many polling centers as judges, the government said it had no choice but to space out the election.
Results from Wednesday's vote, which represents about 40 percent of the seats in parliament, should be available over the weekend. "I can't stress how different this is from 2000,'' says Salah Sadiq, a judge observing the voting at the Taha Hussein school in Cairo's Imbaba district. "The Muslim Brotherhood has been allowed to speak openly, people have come and gone freely - even the boxes are better,'' he says, pointing to the transparent glass in the polling box, which makes it much tougher to stuff in ballots.
But turnout has been low. In 2000, official turnout was 20 percent of registered voters, with opposition groups alleging it was about 10 percent.
"It's not too much of a surprise that people don't care,'' says Khariya Abdul Latif, voting in Imbaba. "The same NDP politician has been our representative for years - he lives in Ismailaya,'' she snorts. "Every five years he comes, he wins, then he disappears."
Ms. Latif, keeping an eye on her 5-year-old, who's seeking to turn the polling center into his personal playground, says she voted for a local businessman Abdel Monem Awar, who spends a lot of money on local charities. "People don't vote because they say they never get anything from the politicians, but I want that to change."