Egyptians flooded the polls today to reap what many considered the fruit of their uprising: the first truly free elections not only since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, but for the past 60 years.
The high turnout seemed to be an expression of confidence in the electoral process overseen by Egypt's military rulers, despite violence and massive protests against military rule last week in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt, which had threatened to derail the vote.
“These incidents encouraged us to come and vote so we can help this country to get back to work and progress, and to have a parliament that represents us instead of these everlasting demonstrations,” says Abdel Hakim Mahmoud Abdel Hakim, a merchant for leather products.
As he stood in line in a downtown Cairo polling station, he said those in Tahrir represent only 5 percent of Egyptians. “There’s a difference between the revolution and talking, talking, talking, all the time. We made the revolution to get rid of an old regime … but we’re still talking. So when are we going to get to work?”
Despite worries that recent violence and protests would undermine the vote, the lines of eager voters were largely orderly as they stretched around the block at polling stations across Cairo. The scene stood in stark contrast to past elections, when few participated in a process that was often rigged from the start, although voters today may have been motivated in part by the government's threat to impose an $85 fine on any registered voters who did not vote.
For many, today was the first time in their lives they had voted, and they were not deterred by the confusing electoral rules or the calls by some activists to boycott the vote out of opposition to the ruling military council.
“Democracy in Egypt is born today,” said Mohamed Osama after he cast his ballot in Cairo’s modest Sayyeda Zainab neighborhood. “I’m happy because it’s the first time in my life I see everyone coming out to make his own choice.”
Some problems, but little violence
There were some reports of violations and problems, including widespread illegal campaigning in front of poll stations. But there was, so far, little of the violence that many had worried about. Army soldiers joined police in guarding the polling stations. In some areas, polling stations did not open or opened late.
The head of the High Election Commission (also referred to as the Supreme Election Commission, or SEC), which is overseeing the vote, said that some judges were late, in some cases because of heavy traffic, and that in other areas ballots were sent to the wrong districts.
The vote comes after a reenergized protest movement challenging the rule of the military council that took power when a popular uprising toppled Mubarak. The military has not enacted the reforms and freedom that people hoped to achieve through the uprising, and recently made moves to secure its vast power and lack of accountability to civilian authorities.
The tens of thousands who flooded into Tahrir Square in the past week demanded that the military transfer power to a civilian government immediately, rejecting the Army’s promises that it would hand over power later, after it had overseen elections. More than 40 people died in clashes between security forces and protesters that lasted for five days.
New parliament will have limited power
Monday’s vote, which will extend through Tuesday, is the first in a three-round process to elect a new People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
The new legislative body is likely to have little power, as the military council currently exerts firm control on every aspect of government and has pledged not to give up that power until presidential elections are held. In a concession to protesters last week, Egypt’s defacto ruler Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said the presidential election would be held by July 2012, nearly a year earlier than the military had planned.
The parliament’s main responsibility will be to choose a committee to rewrite Egypt’s Constitution. While some voters mentioned the Constitution, many seemed more interested in fixing the problems that plague Egypt after decades of corrupt and authoritarian government.
In the modest neighborhood of Zawiya El Hamra, women waiting in line to vote said they hoped the new parliament would bring stability, social justice, lower prices, better education, and more jobs – an indication of the high expectations many have for a less-than-empowered parliament.
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