Long lines at polls as Egypt holds landmark vote

SARAH EL DEEB

Published: Monday, Nov. 28 2011 3:10 a.m. MST

An Egyptian man rests as he waits to vote outside a polling center in Assuit, 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011. 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. The vote is a milestone many Egyptians hope will usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship.

Khalil Hamra, Associated Press

CAIRO — Shaking off years of political apathy, Egyptians turned out in long lines at voting stations Monday in their nation's first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a giant step toward what they hope will be a democracy after decades of dictatorship.

The landmark election has already been overshadowed by turmoil in the streets over the past week, and the population is sharply polarized and confused over the nation's direction. Still, the vote promises to be the fairest and cleanest election in Egypt in living memory.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized group, along with its Islamist allies are expected to do well in the vote, which has been a source of concern for secular and liberal Egyptians who fear the Brotherhood will try to implement a strict version of Islamic law in the country.

Early in the day, voters stood in lines stretching several hundred yards outside some polling centers in Cairo well before they opened at 8 a.m. local time (0600GMT), suggesting a respectable turnout. Many said they were voting for the first time, a sign of an enthusiasm that in this election one's vote mattered.

For decades, few Egyptians bothered to cast ballots because nearly every election was rigged in favor of Mubarak's ruling party, whether through bribery, ballot box stuffing or intimidation by police at the polls. Turnout was often in the single digits.

"I am voting for freedom. We lived in slavery. Now we want justice in freedom," said 50-year-old Iris Nawar as she was about to vote in the district of Maadi, a Cairo suburb.

"We are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. But we lived for 30 years under Mubarak, we will live with them, too," said Nawar, a first-time voter.

The Brotherhood entered the campaign armed with a powerful network of activists around the country and years of experience in political activity, even though it was banned under Mubarak's regime. Love them or hate them, Egyptians know them. That gave them what many see as an automatic leg up over liberal, leftist and secular parties, most of which are newly created after the Feb. 11 fall of Mubarak, are not widely known among the public and were plagued by divisions through the past months.

But also weighing heavily on voters' mind was the question of whether this election will really set Egypt on a path of democracy amid the stormy politics of the past months under the rule of the military, which took power after Mubarak's fall.

The election was shaken by explosive protests the past 10 days by crowds demanding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, hand over power to a civilian government. There has been growing anger against the council, accused of bungling the transition, acting in the same authoritarian way as Mubarak and failing to uproot the remnants of his regime. Some fear it intends to hold on to power, though it has promised to step aside at the end of June.

Some hoped their vote would help eventually push the generals out.

"We are fed up with the military," said Salah Radwan, waiting outside a polling center in Cairo's middle-class Abdeen neighborhood. "They should go to protect our borders and leave us to rule ourselves. Even if we don't get it right this time, we will get it right next time."

On Monday morning in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of the original uprising, a relatively small crowd of a few thousand remained to keep the round-the-clock protests going. Clashes during the protests have left more than 40 dead have heightened fears of violence at polling stations.

The generals decided to forge ahead with the election despite the unrest. But the political crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, potentially rendering the parliament that emerges irrelevant.

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