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Long lines at polls as Egypt holds landmark vote

SARAH EL DEEB

Published: Monday, Nov. 28 2011 6:12 a.m. MST

An Egyptian army soldier guards as women line up outside a polling center in 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.

Amr Nabil, 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 vote promises to be the fairest and cleanest election in Egypt in living memory, but it takes place amid sharp polarization among Egyptians and confusion over the nation's direction. On one level, the election is a competition between Islamic parties who want to take Egypt in a direction toward religious rule and more liberal groups that want a separation between religion and politics.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized group, along with other Islamists are expected to do well in the vote.

But also weighing heavily on voters' mind was whether this election will really set Egypt on a path of democracy after months of turmoil under the rule of the military, which took power after Mubarak's Feb. 11 fall. Only 10 days before the elections, major protests erupted demanding the generals step aside because of fears they will not allow real freedoms.

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, whether by 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 at a polling station in 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.

Some voters brought their children along, saying they wanted them to learn how to exercise their rights in a democracy. Lines in cities around the country brought out a cross-section of the nation: men in Islamic beards, women in trendy clothes, the conservative headscarf or the niqab — the most radical Islamic attire covering women's body from head to toe with only the eyes showing.

Many complained that the lines were too long and moved too slowly at the stations, which were heavily guarded by police and soldiers to prevent violence.

"If you have waited for 30 years, can't you wait now for another hour?" an army officer yelled at hundreds of women restless over the wait at one center.

The election is burdened with a long and unwieldy process. It stretched over multiple stages, with different provinces taking their turn to vote with each round. Each round lasts two days. Voting for 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will last until January, then elections for the 390-member upper house will drag on until March.

Moreover, there are significant questions over how relevant the new parliament will even be. The ruling military council of generals, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, insists it will maintain considerable powers after the election. It will put together the government and is trying to keep extensive control over the creation of an assembly to write a new constitution, a task that originally was seen as mainly in the parliament's hands.

The protesters who took to Cairo's Tahrir Square and other cities since Nov. 19 in rallies recalling the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak demand the generals surrender power immediately to a civilian government.

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

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