CAIRO — The surprisingly heavy turnout for Egypt's first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster boosted the ruling military, which pointed to the crowds of voters as proof of popular support for their democratic transition plan in the face of protesters demanding they surrender power.
Long lines formed at polling stations for a second day of voting Tuesday and 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.
The generals, who took power after Mubarak's Feb. 11 fall, did not field any candidates. But they were clearly hoping their successful shepherding of Egypt's freest election in living memory would deflate the wave of protests against them that erupted 10 days ago. The protests, which drew more than 100,000 people to Cairo's Tahrir Square, galvanized growing anger among some Egyptians against the military, who they accuse of perpetuating the old regime's autocratic rule.
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 protesters argued that elections were meaningless under the military rule, though they did not call outright for the postponing of the vote. They demanded the military step down in favor of a civilian government immediately, warning that the generals seek to hold power despite promises that elections will bring democracy. A crackdown by security forces on the protests killed more than 40 people over nine days.
But the crowds at polling stations Monday and Tuesday suggested Egyptians were less concerned with protesters' warnings than with the possibility of having their votes count for the first time. Many were hopeful the elections will start the country on a path to real change.
"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 on Tuesday. "It's a great thing to feel like your vote matters."
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 generals have sought to isolate the protesters, saying they don't reflect public opinion. "Tahrir is not Egypt," one general said sharply several days ago. Now they point to the turnout as proof that the "party of the couch," as many have called the population that didn't join the protests, is fine with the army's timeline for the transition to civilian rule.
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 for a new president by the end of June.
The protests, which erupted Nov. 19, forced the council to move up its timetable for surrendering power to a civilian government to mid-year rather than late 2012 or early 2103. But many fear the generals will continue to dominate the government even after the handover.
Already, the parliament that emerges from the current voting could have little relevance. It's not even clear whether the parliament will last past the drafting of the new constitution in the coming months. 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
In effect, the vote has become little more than 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 and secular parties that drove the uprising earlier this year entered the race weak, divided and poorly organized, in part because supporters have been debating for months whether it was best to contest the election or focus on anti-military protests. Members of Mubarak's regime and ruling party, except a few who are in jail or on trial, were allowed to run, something that detracts from the legitimacy of the vote in the eyes of the youthful activists.
The strength of the Brotherhood's campaign organization was clear in the voting. They had activists and organizers at the vast majority of polling stations.
In the impoverished Cairo district of Sayeda Zeinab, Brotherhood youth set up booths with laptops to help voters find their names on the rosters and guide them to correct station. Brotherhood activists passed out campaign literature to voters waiting in line and pointed out the symbol of their party — the scale — for people to look for on the ballot. Each party in the campaign has a symbol so that illiterate voters can recognize their choice.
Such campaigning at the polling sites appears to have been the most widespread violation of election rules so far, and reports from multiple observers point to the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Islamic Salafis as the most frequent offenders.
"It is a crime punishable by law," Ibrahim, the election commission chief, said. He mentioned a few other minor violations, including a policeman forging ballots for a candidate in the southern city of Luxor.
Voters expressed a swirl of hopes — some wanted to ensure an Islamist victory while others wanted to prevent one. They want to see security after months of rising crime and better government to fix a rapidly worsening economy.
Some said they were voting simply to avoid a fine the military announced would be imposed on anyone who did not cast a ballot — 500 Egyptian pounds, or about $85, a significant amount in a country where 40 percent of the population makes less than $1 a day or just slightly more.
In some slums of the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, people brought hobbling, elderly parents and stood with them in line, saying they brought them out of fear of the fine.
"You think any of these candidates can change anything? Of course not. Ask anyone here — wouldn't see these lines without the fine," said Walaa Rushdi Mohammed, a 33-year-old office employee.
Gabr Ahmed, a 27-year-old technician, said he was intentionally casting a spoiled ballot to avoid being hit for 500 pounds.
"I don't know anyone running and no one impresses me," he said
The voting process, long and complicated, is staggered over the next six weeks across 27 provinces. It is 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 — mechanics that have left many among some 50 million eligible voters puzzled and apparently still undecided.
Confusion over the candidates was widespread. The Brotherhood is a known entity to most Egyptians, but the bevy of new parties of all stripes was a mystery to many.
In Cairo, Hosnia Muhammad, in her 50s, said she voted for the Wafd Party, a liberal party known to many because it existed under Mubarak's rule. But many of the new revolutionaries consider the Wafd too close to the old regime.
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"I am not with the Brotherhood because they will eventually force women to stay home and not work and will dictate what we wear on the streets," said Muhammed. "I am against Tahrir right now because they are no longer speaking for Egypt," she added, referring to the protesters.
She expressed support for the military rulers. She said the council "doesn't really want to be in power but they are the only ones keeping us from chaos."
Al-Shalchi reported from Alexandria. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael and Alexander Besant contributed to this report from Cairo.