CAIRO — Egypt's military rulers claimed victory Tuesday after the surprisingly heavy turnout for the first elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, calling it proof of popular support for their democratic transition plan. Long lines formed at polling stations for a second day of voting.
The turnout boosts the military council after protests that erupted on Nov. 19 in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other cities, denouncing the ruling generals and demanding they transfer power immediately to a civilian authority. At times, the protests drew more than 100,000 and a crackdown by security forces killed more than 40 people over nine days.
Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said the vote for a parliament "responds to all those who were skeptical that elections will take place on time." He called the turnout "unprecedented in the history of the Arab world's parliamentary life."
The head of the election commission, Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim proclaimed that the turnout so far had been "massive and unexpected." But he did not give figures.
Despite the turmoil leading up to the vote, Egyptians poured out to participate, eager to cast ballots in the country's first free and fair elections in living memory. The voting was still going strong on Tuesday, the second and final day of the first round of the elections, with long lines forming again at polling stations in the capital Cairo and other cities.
The size of the crowds suggested Egyptians are more concerned with exercising their vote and shaping the new parliament than with the protesters' warnings that elections have little legitimacy under the domination of the military, which took power after Mubarak's Feb. 11 fall. The generals had sought to isolate the protesters by insisting they did not represent the broader public.
Speaking to the state-run daily Al-Ahram Al-Massai, al-Mulla said the vote was the "first step in the path to a new democratic state" followed by the drafting of a new constitution and elections of a new president at the end of June.
Egypt's state dailies Tuesday trumpeted the military as the guardians of democracy, running pictures of troops protecting polling centers. The biggest daily, Al-Ahram, showed two soldiers carrying an elderly woman to help her get to the polls.
The protests in recent days forced the council to move up its timetable for surrendering power to a civilian government to late June, rather than late 2012 or early 2103. But many fear the generals will continue to dominate the government even after the handover.
The military's domination has already reduced the relevance of the new parliament that will be created from the current elections. The generals have said the legislature will have no power over the military-appointed civilian government. The parliament's powers to form the assembly that is to write the next constitution are also likely to be limited. It's not even clear how long the new parliament will stay in place.
In effect, the vote has become a tool for measuring the strength of the main political players in this nation of 85 million — and will indicate whether one of America's most important Middle East allies will turn down a more Islamic path. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are expected to be the biggest winners, seizing a plurality and possibly majority of parliament.
In contrast, liberal, leftist and secular parties entered the race weak and divided, in part because supporters have been debating for months whether it was best to contest the election or to focus on protests against the military. Members of Mubarak's old regime and ruling party, except the few who are in jail or on trial, were allowed to run freely in these elections, something that for the youthful activists behind Mubarak's ouster detracts from the legitimacy of the vote.
But many voters said they hoped the election could bring a chance for real democracy.
"I am voting for this country's sake. We want a new beginning," said Zeinab Saad, 50, who brought her young daughter to a polling station in Cairo. "It's a great thing to feel like your vote matters."
There were numerous reports of election violations by party activists, most over campaigning close to polling sites while voting was under way.
"It is a crime punishable by law," Ibrahim said of such violations. He also said some polling centers witnessed delays and three were closed following scuffles. He said one polling center was closed after the commission found a policeman forging ballots for a candidate in the southern city of Luxor.
The huge turnout Monday — some voters waited in line for seven hours or more — was the biggest surprise so far in these elections. Past elections had been heavily rigged and turnout was tepid, sometimes in the single digits at times.
This time around, some hoped their votes would help push the military from power. Backers of the Brotherhood and Islamic groups like the ultraconservative Salafis turned out in heavy numbers, while others said their main goal in voting was to try to keep the Islamists in check.
Many in the country are frustrated with how the military rulers have been handling the transition over the past 10 months. Some critics say the military rulers are no different from the old regime, still enforcing emergency laws, rounding up thousands and putting them on trial in military courts, and perhaps most seriously, trying to cling to power.
The voting process, long and complicated, is staggered over the next six weeks across 27 provinces, divided into thirds with runoffs held a week after the first round in each location.
Voters have to pick two individuals and one alliance or party slate — a mechanics that has left many among the 50 million eligible voters puzzled and apparently still undecided.
While the overwhelming majority spoke with excitement over getting to cast their ballot, a few headed to the polls to avoid a 500 Egyptian pounds ($85) fine imposed by the ruling military on absent voters. In some of the country's populous districts, younger voters dragged their elders to make sure they would not have to pay the fine.
"I am voting here just because of the 500 Egyptian pounds," said Walaa Mohammed, a 33-year-old office employee, adding she didn't think the lines outside polling stations would not be so long if it were not for the fine.
In the Menshiya neighborhood in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, long separate lines of men and women waited patiently in front of polling stations, where the ground was littered with Muslim Brotherhood flyers as activists campaigned into the last minute, whispering to voters to pick their candidates.
Al-Shalchi reported from Alexandria. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.