Egyptians turned out in big numbers on a mostly peaceful first day of voting for a new parliament, driven by optimism to build a new post-Hosni Mubarak era and the threat of fines if they stayed at home, vote monitors said on Monday.
Democracy campaigners had worried a week of deadly clashes in Cairo and other cities in the run-up to the vote and a history of electoral violence might lead people to avoid polling stations for fear they could get caught up in unrest.
Many, especially the illiterate, were perplexed by complex procedures and long lists of candidates, but still turned up early on Monday to wait for hours in queues stretching up to 2 kilometers (more than one mile) at some stations, monitors said.
They said it was too early to estimate overall turnout. No figures have been released, but the top election committee official said numbers were more than expected.
The military rulers also reported a high turnout and extended voting hours to accommodate this.
“It’s easy to predict that this will be a higher turnout than any recent election in Egypt,” said Les Campbell, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI). “We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation.”
In the parliamentary vote under Mubarak last November, officials put turnout at 35 percent in the first round of voting. Rights groups said it was more like 10 percent.
The backdrop was ominous after a week of protests calling for the resignation of the interim military rulers who stepped in after Mubarak’s fall. Forty-two people were killed and more than 3,000 injured.
Voting passed off peacefully and the opening hours of polling booths were extended to 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) to enable the thousands who waited for hours in long queues to cast their ballots.
“We were surprised that people turned out to vote in large numbers, thank God,” Abdel Moez Ibrahim, who heads the High Judicial Elections Commission (HJEC), told reporters, adding that there had been no security problems.
Some voted on Monday to avoid a 500 Egyptian-pound ($83.30) fine for people who did not vote, monitors said. The fine was rarely enforced in the past but some feared that had changed.
“But there are also many who are going to vote to elect their candidates. When you add both, we expect a huge turnout,” said Mohsen Kamal, monitoring supervisor at Al-Andalus Institute for Tolerance Studies, a European and U.S. funded monitor group.
Test of credibility
The election, due to run through to mid-January, is a test for the credibility of Egypt’s generals who have struggled to deal with social unrest and growing pressure for a quick handover to civilian rule.
The army said it would not allow foreigners to monitor the vote but seems to have backed down, allowing groups such as NDI, The Carter Centre, the International Republican Institute and South African, Turkish, Polish and Danish groups to take part.
Alongside 300 foreign civil society representatives are 25,000 accredited monitors and thousands more concerned citizens who have pledged to alert the organizers to abuses.
Monitors Without Borders said the turnout was the biggest in six decades, and was accompanied by a flurry of citizen activism on social networks and YouTube, where people were uploading examples of violations.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said it received around 300 complaints about polling stations that opened late, a lack of voting papers, supervisors falling sick and widespread flouting of a ban on campaigning at the ballot.
The chief of police in Ain Shams, a suburb of the capital Cairo, was suspended because an election area did not have ballot papers before early afternoon, the rights group said. Elsewhere, a judge cancelled voting as people surged into a polling station he was overseeing.
“The judge couldn’t take it,” said Mouna Zulfakkar, a lawyer from the Egyptian rights group, which alerted the Interior Ministry and armed forces to many reported violations. “They have been extremely responsive,” she said.
Much remains unclear about how the new parliament will function and whether it will be able to resolve a standoff with the armed forces over how much power they will retain under a new constitution to be written next year.
The formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group, is widely expected to emerge as the largest power but without an outright majority when results for the lower parliament are published on January 13.
Hard-line Islamists, secular parties and groups representing the interests of the former Mubarak regime are all expected to win seats, raising the prospect of a highly fragmented and ideologically split parliament.
Stakes are high
The stakes could not be higher for Egypt, the cultural leader of the Arab world, but the conduct and results of the election will also have repercussions for the entire Middle East at a time of wrenching change.
“For most Arabs, the primary examples of democratic processes in the Arab world are in Iraq and Lebanon,” said Bruce Rutherford, a Middle East specialist and author on Egypt at the U.S.-based Colgate University.
“In both cases, elections produced weak, fragmented, and largely ineffectual governments.
“If Egypt produces the same result, then the appeal of democracy in the region may be weakened. However, if the Egyptian experience is positive... the effect could be very powerful.”
Egypt, with a fast-growing population of more than 80 million, is a former British protectorate ruled by military leaders for most of its history since independence in 1922.
The fresh protests last week stemmed from fears that military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his fellow generals, initially welcomed as a source of stability in the days after Mubarak’s fall, were looking to consolidate their power.
Critics say they have also been too quick to resort to the repressive techniques of the Mubarak regime, jailing dissidents and unleashing deadly violence on protesters.