Cairo – Unexpectedly large crowds of voters turned out on Monday to cast their votes in Egypt’s first parliamentary election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a ballot that seemed to blend vindication of the democratic struggle with uncertainty over the revolution’s final outcome.
By 9 a.m., voters had formed long and peaceful lines under the watchful eyes of a heavy police and army guard to cast votes in rich and poor neighborhoods across Cairo. In several places, lines stretched as long as a block along the banks of the Nile, and there were similar reports from Alexandria and Port Said.
In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s democracy struggle, several thousand protesters maintained their 10-day occupation to press demands for the immediate end to military rule. But that did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm shown by some Egyptians for the vote.
At several polling stations around Cairo, voters reported frustrating delays of up to four hours because ballots or voter lists or even the supervising judges had not arrived on time, and a news report said soldiers fired in the air in at least one of the capital’s slums to disperse an angry crowd trying to reach a polling station.
For all that, Egyptians displayed little of the pride and exultation that Tunisians described as they went to the polls for the first vote of the Arab Spring just one month ago. Instead, voters in Egypt talked of duty and defiance, of a determination to exercise the rights they believed their revolution had earned them even though few expressed much confidence in the integrity of the vote count.
At a polling place in the Cairo neighborhood of Shobra, voters laughed at their own stubborn determination to cast ballots they had little faith would make a difference: “If a sick person is dying,” ran a joke making its way down the queue, “you still have to get him to the hospital.”
Many political parties ignored election rules prohibiting them from passing out leaflets on the day of the polls. Crowds of young men handed out fliers advertising parties or candidates at the doors to several polling places, and the grounds inside were littered with them.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the group that defined Islamist politics, was poised to win a dominant role in the Parliament of the country that for nearly six decades was the paradigmatic secular dictatorship of the Arab world.
The Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party was by far the best organized. It set up small teams of young me with laptop computers at strategic intersections around Cairo to help voters locate their polling places, and while they graciously helped anyone regardless of their affiliation, they handed them the location information on slips of paper printed with the logo and candidates.
At some polling places, teams of Brotherhood members wearing the insignia of the Freedom and Justice Party were on hand to help maintain security, and they could be seen performing services like escorting elderly women to specially designated lines.
But election monitors and human rights groups said the irregularities appeared to reflect predictable disorganization more than a conspiracy to the influence the outcome, and the unexpectedly large turnout overshadowed all else.
Some human rights activists said it appeared that for the first time in more than six decades, a Parliament with the legitimacy of a democratic election would represent the will of Egyptian people.
“It is the usual messiness,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “But if the turnout remains as high as it looks, ultimately that is what matters, right?,” she said. “If this continues through the end of tomorrow, that will be enough to carry the process through. This will be a legitimate Parliament.”
The prospect of that historic turn has been largely overshadowed here by another, more urgent contest unfolding outside the voting booths: between the military council that seized power at Mr. Mubarak’s ouster last February and a resurgent protest movement demanding the council’s exit.
The ruling generals have defied a week of protests to reiterate, more forcefully than ever in recent days, that they expect to yield almost no authority to the new Parliament, and might claim special permanent powers under the new constitution that the Parliament is to write. The council’s top officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, declared on Sunday that “the position of the armed forces will remain as it is — it will not change in any new constitution.”
At the same time, the generals have set a political timetable calling for the Parliament to be seated in March and disbanded perhaps as early as July. They have established a convoluted and opaque voting system that is almost doomed to lack credibility. And nearly everyone expects widespread violence among supporters of rival candidates — a hallmark of past Egyptian elections and a preoccupation of pre-election commentary this time.
“The elections will have no legitimacy,” said Sally Moore, a psychiatrist of Egyptian and Irish descent who was among the young organizers behind the original revolt against Mr. Mubarak.
“It won’t be a working Parliament. It will be a Parliament that people want to overthrow,” she said. “It is a sideshow. But it is being portrayed as a main event, because people want to have some hope. They will end up disappointed.”
Many liberal candidates suspended their campaigns last week because of the protests. Several said they were urging their supporters to go to the polls on Monday just to limit the Islamists’ gains, even at the risk of appearing to legitimize a questionable result.
“I expect a lot of violence,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a liberal organizer who also took part in the original uprising. “But we are telling people to go and vote, because we don’t want the Islamists to have the whole thing for themselves.” The atmosphere, he said, was “very depressing.”
A widely followed Facebook page that played a crucial role in rallying opposition to Mr. Mubarak captured the deep ambivalence of many of the original revolutionaries. It urged voters to go to the polls dressed in black, in part to mourn the more than 40 people killed last week in clashes with security forces during the protests against military rule.
“We want the elections to be the first white mark in the history of the revolution” but “a black mark on the front of the regime,” the Facebook page, We Are All Khaled Said, declared. “We will go to the elections, because it is the first step on the path of taking power back from the military, who we think should go quickly back to their barracks.”
In interviews, many Egyptians were already looking past the election, which will take place in stages over the next few months. Some said they feared its failure could give the military an excuse to keep power, perhaps under a reshuffled council.
But others argued that even a flawed election would lend the Parliament more legitimacy than street protesters could muster against the power of the military council, and the very act of voting would carry Egypt one step further from dictatorship and closer to democracy.
“This is a test, and the people have to take it,” said Ali Khalifa, 55, a government worker who visited a cafe in Sayed Zeinab, a working-class area of Cairo. “But you don’t take tests just to pass or fail. We can study for it and learn from it, because this is the first step in our future life.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was about the only major faction in Egypt to withdraw from the protests against the military, or to assert that the election results could be credible.
That stance opened divisions in the Brotherhood, with some critics accusing it of selling out the cause of democracy for short-term political advantage.
“I wasn’t comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood’s absence from Tahrir Square,” Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most popular Islamist thinkers in the region, said on state television. “Absence is not a correct position, in my opinion.”
The Brotherhood — once banned, but now Egypt’s best-organized political force — faces competition from Islamic-oriented parties both to its right (founded by the ultraconservatives known as Salafis) and to its left (the Center Party and the Egyptian Current, each founded by moderate former Brotherhood members).
Among the liberals, there are two major coalitions. One, the Egyptian Bloc, is an anti-Islamist alliance of culturally liberal parties with economic policies ranging from business-friendly to state-run socialist. The other, the Revolution Continues Alliance, includes the Egyptian Current and a party founded by young leaders of the revolution. And there are many smaller parties and a profusion of 6,000 candidates for about 500 seats.
In an interview Sunday night, Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Brotherhood’s new party, Freedom and Justice, put off any questions about the powers of the military or Parliament until after the election, for fear of unnerving voters.
“We are not going to have a debate with the military now,” he said. “The battle will be after the election, if there is a need to battle.”