As Egypt votes, a surprising calm. But real test still to come

The first day of voting in Egypt's parliamentary election has been surprisingly calm and orderly. But the process will stretch out over three rounds set to culminate in January.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
A woman marks her paper ballot before casting her vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Cairo November 28.

After a week of revolutionary upheaval, with state violence against democracy protesters leaving dozens dead in Cairo, Egypt began voting today in its first parliamentary election since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.

While the protests against Egypt's military rulers and attendant violence had many people questioning whether the first round of parliamentary elections could be fairly held today, most observers on the ground – including our correspondent Kristen Chick – are reporting a surprising amount of calm and order.

In Cairo and Alexandria at least, there were long lines of voters at multiple polling stations, and reports of a generally buoyant mood. The hard-core activists in Tahrir Square, still insisting that elections be delayed this morning, have had little impact on the day so far.

While these are positive early signs, stress must be placed on "early." Egypt's parliamentary election is being stretched out over three stages and two months. The ballots' hodge-podge of party lists, individual candidates, and parliamentary quota requirements for ill-defined "farmers" and "workers" is very hard to disentangle, increasing the likelihood that voters will make mistakes.

The election itself is being run and overseen by the same bureaucracy that oversaw Egypt's sham elections of 2005 and 2010. Fraud in ballot counting is still possible. Even if the count is fairly clean, convincing the public of that fact could prove a challenge given Egypt's history of stolen elections. There were delays in opening dozens of polling places, and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party looks set to make a strong showing today, is beginning to field accusations of ballot-stuffing from secularist rivals.

Future trouble can't be discounted. Violence on behalf of individual candidates is common in Egyptian elections (at least eight people were killed across the country in the rigged 2010 parliamentary election), particularly in rural areas where independent oversight and monitoring is weaker. Once the election is finished and parliament sits, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will continue to hold executive power.

Will the next parliament defy SCAF, and seek to grab full authority to write a new constitution for itself? Will it be filled with former stalwarts of Mr. Mubarak's regime (and therefore likely quiescent in the face of military pressure)? Will the Brotherhood dominate the parliament and guide Egypt in a much more overtly Islamist direction?

These are just some of the questions looming over this election and its outcome. The process has started, but answers remain months away.

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