For many Egyptian voters, finally an election that matters

Today's parliamentary elections in Egypt saw a high turnout. Some voters confessed they didn't really know the candidates, but were excited to participate nonetheless.

Khalil Hamra/AP
An elderly Egyptian man casts his ballot on the first day of parliamentary elections in Assuit, 200 miles south of Cairo, on Monday. Voting began on Monday in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising nine months ago.
Ahmed Ali/AP
Egyptian women wait to vote in the country's parliamentary election outside a polling center in Cairo on Monday.

Defying skeptics and a week of revolutionary tumult, Egyptian voters came out in such high numbers today that polling station hours have been extended to 9 p.m. local time.

While subsequent rounds of the parliamentary election remain to be contested over coming months, the high turnout in this first round is seen by many as a vote of confidence in the electoral process despite violent clashes last week in Tahrir Square and elsewhere that left dozens dead. Still, election observers reported significant violations.

Today's vote comes at a critical time for Egypt, whose transition from autocratic rule to a hoped-for democracy has been less than smooth. Jubilation at the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak gave way to a realization that the military council that assumed power was replicating many of his repressive policies, and delaying the timeline for transition to civilian rule.

After the military recently made moves to secure broad powers and ensure it was not accountable to civilian authorities, a reenergized protest movement came back to Tahrir Square to demand a quicker transition to civilian rule. When security forces killed more than 40 people in clashes with protesters, more Egyptians flooded the square and demanded that the military transfer power to a civilian government immediately.

Protesters have continued to occupy Tahrir Square since last week, but their numbers were low at midday Monday. Tents were sprawled across the square, where hundreds gathered to demand that the military council step down. Many in the square were boycotting the elections.

“They’re only going to forge the elections,” said Hesham Adl. “The only people who will be elected to the government are members of [Mubarak's disbanded party, the National Democratic Party] or the Brotherhood, and I fear there will be clashes.”  

Like others, he has been in Tahrir since clashes broke out Nov. 19. “I’m staying here until there are changes made in the country,” said Mr. Adl. 

Some problems, but little violence

Inside several Cairo polling stations, the process was slow but orderly. Voters were given two ballots, one for the individual candidates that will make up one-third of the lower house of parliament, and another for the proportional list-based system that will fill the rest of the seats. Poll workers explained the process to voters as they handed them massive ballots that accommodated more than 100 candidates in many districts. A symbol was printed next to each candidate’s name for illiterate voters.

Election monitors reported significant violations, though it is not yet clear how systematic they may have been. Sherif Azer, deputy head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, says a coalition of observers had reported violations that included vote buying, group voting, preventing monitors from entering polling stations, campaigning inside polling stations, and a small number of violent clashes.

He also says that 90 percent of polling stations opened late; some did not have enough ballots, and others lacked ink to mark voters' fingers and prevent repeat voting.

The head of the High Election Commission (also referred to as the Supreme Election Commission), which is overseeing the vote, said that some judges were late because of heavy traffic and that some ballots were sent to the wrong districts.

Mr. Azer says the violations are worrying, but fewer than in previous years. He also says the monitors reported high voter turnout in all but two of the nine governorates voting in the first round.

Les Campbell, Middle East and North Africa director for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, says the high turnout and enthusiasm are encouraging, but that it is too early to draw conclusions.

“Night has just fallen, there's still lots of potential for problems for things to go wrong, and there's still potential for confusion,” he says amid touring Cairo polling stations. “I still wonder how in the world they're going to secure all of these polling places with the ballot boxes overnight. That's a big question mark.”

Islamists set to perform well

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 parliament’s main responsibility will be to choose a committee to rewrite Egypt’s Constitution.

But many voters seem more interested in fixing the problems that plague Egypt after decades of corrupt and authoritarian government, including poor education, high prices, and unemployment. The parliament will have limited scope to address such problems, however, so long as the military council retains its near-total hold on power.

One group that looked set to gain from the vote was the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best-organized Islamist movement. Volunteers from the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, vastly outnumbered those from other parties on the ground today.

They set up computers outside many polls to help voters look up their assigned voting locations and, along with many other parties, passed out flyers, despite election rules that forbade such campaigning.   

While the FJP is likely to perform well, a larger question is how even more conservative Islamist groups might fare. In the Sayyeda Zainab neighborhood, posters could be seen everywhere for the Nour Party, set up by Salafis, who were repressed under Mubarak.

At the neighborhood mosque, located next to a police station that was burned during the revolution, two elderly men said they had voted for the Nour Party because they wanted to see Islamic law, or sharia, govern Egypt.

“We ask that God would help us administer this state according to sharia,” said Mahmoud Farouk. “Thank God that he rescued us from the corruption we were under. It is the first time for us to feel we are really free people.”

Azer said that elsewhere in Cairo representatives of the FJP as well as the Party were buying votes for 50 Egyptian pounds (about $8).

New parliament will have limited power

For some voters, the act of voting seemed more important than the candidate they picked. It was a statement of victory over the authorities who had long abused Egyptians, and many seemed to revel in the chance to finally choose representatives they hoped would serve the people.

“This was the first time I voted since Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Ramadan Abu El Hassan Ali, an elderly man in the robes typical of those from southern Egypt. “I have no idea about any of the parties except this one [candidate] whose name is Mohsen,” he said, referring to a local candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party. “The first one I encounter, I will elect him.”

Mr. Ali wasn’t the only one unfamiliar with the candidates.

“The problem is that I don’t know any candidate, so I’ll just go and pick someone by chance,” said accountant Magda Howady.

Her friend Nahed Mohamed, a middle-aged secretary who wears a veil, announced she would vote for the Egyptian Bloc, an alliance of secular-minded leftist and liberal parties. One of them is headed by Christian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who ignited controversy when he posted a cartoon on Twitter showing a bearded Micky Mouse and veiled Minnie – a commentary on the growing clout of Islamist movements here.

The two women argued over whether the cartoon was insulting to Islam. Mrs. Mohamed said it was not, and argued that the Egyptian Bloc deserved her vote because it included many businessmen who will work to better Egypt’s failing economy. It was a debate – over election choices – that the two friends had never had before.

Correspondent Sarah Lynch contributed reporting from Tahrir Square.

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