CAIRO — Ballots never arrived at some polling stations. Judges were so late that voting was delayed by hours in some populous districts. Political parties openly campaigned in violation of the law. And voters puzzled over long lists of candidates.
None of those imperfections seemed to matter Monday, however, as millions of voters defied predictions of violence and cast ballots in Egypt’s first election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last February.
In Cairo, the port city of Alexandria and other large provinces, lines were long, but spirits high, as the first round of staggered elections got under way for a parliament whose main charge will be picking the drafters of a new constitution.
The upbeat mood lifted the country, if only briefly, from the doldrums of political stalemate and street warfare. Egyptians said they didn’t mind the hours-long wait outside most polling stations because, for the first time, they felt their votes would be counted. Mubarak’s regime was known for rigged elections and voter intimidation.
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“For the first time in my life, my voice will mean something,” said Mohamed Nassar, 36, who spent hours in line in Cairo's hardscrabble Seyyida Zaineb district. “I’ll wait as long as it takes.”
The unexpectedly high turnout and virtually violence-free Election Day gave a boost to Egypt’s beleaguered military rulers, who'd insisted on going ahead with the voting despite a week of turmoil near Cairo's Tahrir Square that left nearly 40 anti-government protesters dead.
The fact that the voting went remarkably smoothly gave purchase to the military’s latest mantra: Tahrir Square doesn’t speak for a “silent majority” of Egyptians, who are tired of demonstrations and desperate to see progress of any sort.
“With all due respect and love to Tahrir Square and all the protesters there, I think the rules of the game have changed,” said Fakhr Ezz Eddin, 44, a computer engineer who voted in the mostly poor Shobra district, where the crime rate has skyrocketed since Mubarak’s heavy-handed security apparatus crumbled.
“Pressure through protesting doesn’t affect the military council anymore,” Ezz Eddin continued. “It’s now a political and legal game that Tahrir protesters will not be able to play from there, and not by those tactics.”
That was becoming all too clear to the hundreds of protesters who held their ground Monday in Tahrir Square and outside the nearby Cabinet building. They watched the voting with a mix of anger and trepidation. Many said they’d either boycotted the vote or intentionally spoiled their ballots, asserting that any parliament elected under the auspices of the military would be illegitimate.
As the election appeared to go on without major problems, their fury was palpable and the tenor of the square was noticeably more menacing than on any recent day of demonstrations. Some worried that the high turnout would give the council the green light to clear out the square with batons and tear gas.
"We’re now fighting the former government, the same thing we did in January, as if the revolution never happened,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, 24, who was among a cluster of young men wrapped in blankets at the Cabinet sit-in. “I’m worried about what will happen after elections. The process will go on and the council will keep turning people against us but I don’t care, even if they kill me here.”
The council heralded the election as a great success and, to make certain no one missed its reclaiming of the revolutionary mantle, state TV referred to the vote as the “election for the parliament of the revolution.”
At a news conference in Cairo, the election commission’s chief triumphantly rattled off the complex logistics behind the vote: some 9,000 polling places, 10,000 election judges, more than 50 political parties and so on. Abdel Moez Ibrahim, the appellate judge who heads the commission, said he’d recorded only minor violations and a handful of security problems, mostly fistfights.
Ibrahim beamed before the TV cameras and declared: “Today, we begin a renaissance.”
Despite the government’s self-congratulatory posturing, voters said they still supported the fundamental demand of the Tahrir protesters: civilian rule. They may be weary of demonstrations, they said, but that doesn’t mean they won’t keep fighting through parliament for greater civilian control over the council’s runaway powers.
“We’re now forming a parliament that should keep in mind that they’re here to serve the country, not themselves, and if they don’t, we will bring them down the same way we voted them in,” said Laila Hedaia, 63, a housewife. “Tahrir Square is always there.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was the council’s primary backer in keeping elections on schedule, to the ire of liberal parties who would’ve needed the Islamists’ backing to force out the entrenched generals. But nothing could’ve kept the group from its moment, and much of the voting Monday looked like “a Brotherhood coming-out party,” as Shadi Hamid, an expert on the group who’s currently in Cairo, wrote on his Twitter account.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party passed out baseball caps and rain ponchos — all emblazoned with the party’s scales-of-justice logo — to voters standing outside in inclement weather in Cairo and Alexandria. At hundreds of polling places, the party had set up “information booths” festooned with campaign posters. They helped voters find polling places and gave them tutorials on filling out ballots.
In Maadi, an upscale district with a large enclave of Westerners, some voters complained that the information booth was brazen campaigning. They lobbied a judge to shut it down, but the party had erected it exactly at the 100-meter threshold — about 110 yards — that electoral law allowed.
“They’re always confusing us. We never know what they’re up to,” Sohair Nicola, 58, who works in tourism management, said in reference to the Brotherhood. “They say they won’t be in the square, and then they run to Tahrir just to grab a piece of the cake.”
Freedom and Justice Party members said the booths were just community service, not campaigning — though the information slips that voters received were stamped with the party logo.
While voters marveled at the group’s discipline and efficiency, there also were concerns about the Brotherhood’s motivations. A few voters described inching away from the Brotherhood after its recent waffling over the renewed uprising.
On Monday, the White House issued high praise for the elections, and even made rare positive remarks alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the State Department considers a militant group. There’s a push in Congress to repeal the annual $1.3 billion aid package to Egypt should the Islamists take power.
“I think it is in some ways unfair to assume that any party that has a religious affiliation cannot adhere to democratic principles,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “It’s just simply not the case and hasn’t been borne out by the facts.”
It wasn’t just Islamists who were campaigning close to the polls and within 48 hours of the election — violations of the electoral code — but virtually every party, including liberals and regroupings of the former regime. They distributed leaflets right at polling stations and, in some cases, blasted campaign messages through bullhorns from slow-moving cars. Still, international observers said, it was too early to tell whether the violations would be taken seriously or tolerated as part of the growing pains of Egypt’s transition.
Just blocks away from Tahrir, at the polling station closest to the square, lines stretched for hundreds of yards as a cross-section of Egyptian society came out to vote. Unveiled college students, elderly Coptic women wearing gold crosses and Islamists in flowing black robes stood patiently for their turns at the ballot box.
There were many self-professed liberals in line, and they said they’d anguished over whether to vote or to boycott the elections in solidarity with fellow revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. They listed various reasons for deciding to participate: giving elections a fair chance, countering Islamist and former-regime influence or because they thought fair polls could curtail violence and unrest.
“It was not an easy decision. You think of the people in Tahrir and they have legitimate requests,” said Ibtihal Sameh, 30, who works at a multinational corporation. “But we have no other options. We just give our votes and hopefully they’ll make a difference.”
Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent David Enders in Alexandria, Egypt, and Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this article.