Tara Todras-Whitehill, Associated Press
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.
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