CAIRO — Egypt's military rulers were quick to take credit Tuesday for a strong turnout in the first elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a vote that appeared to be the country's freest and fairest in living memory.
The military did not field candidates in the parliamentary vote. But winning bragging rights for a smooth, successful and virtually fraud-free election would significantly boost the ruling generals in their bitter struggle with youthful protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square calling for them to transfer power immediately to a civilian authority.
"When we plan, we execute and, at the end, we succeed," Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling military council, said in a television interview. He compared the elections to one of the Egyptian military's proudest moments — when they battled Israeli forces across the Suez Canal in 1973.
"The armed forces pulled off this election like they pulled off the crossing in 1973," he said.
Even before two days of voting began Monday, protesters were accusing the military of trying to cling to power and safeguard its interests under any future government. Now, they warn the ruling council will try to use the success of the election to cement its hold on power.
Already, the ruling council's perceived success seems to have taken the wind out of Tahrir protests, at least temporarily. The square that was the center of the anti-Mubarak uprising had as many vendors as protesters on Tuesday. Several small groups of older men intensely debating politics was the only sign of political activity.
"I voted yesterday and returned to Tahrir. I found it empty except for the vendors," said Samer Suliman, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo and one of the founders of the Social Democratic party.
"I think the military won big from the elections," he added. "The soldiers at the polling stations with their big smiles and politeness are giving the impression to the people that they are carrying the country on their shoulders. No doubt that they are dancing right now."
The generals, who took power after the 18-day uprising that pushed Mubarak out, were clearly hoping their successful shepherding of election would deflate the wave of protests against them that erupted 10 days ago. The protests, which drew more than 100,000 people in Tahrir at their height, galvanized growing anger among some who accuse the military of perpetuating the old regime's autocratic rule.
Etman estimated the turnout for the first round of voting at 70 percent and the head of the elections commission said it was "massive" but gave no figures. There will be two more rounds of voting for a parliament in the coming months and a series of run-offs. The process will not be completed until March.
Another member of the ruling council, Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla, called the turnout "unprecedented in the history of the Arab world's parliamentary life."
Egypt's state media lavishly praised the military as the guardians of democracy, splashing on their front pages pictures of troops protecting polling centers or soldiers carrying elderly women to the polls.
"The ballots of the freedom parliament under the protection of the army," announced a headline in Cairo's Al-Ahram Al-Masai.
Al-Malla said the turnout was a message of solidarity from Egyptians to their armed forces.
"Our response to that message is: We are with you," he said as a small crowd of supporters gathered around him while touring polling centers in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, northeast of Cairo. "The army and the people are one hand," they chanted — invoking the mantra of the uprising earlier this year, when Tahrir protesters enthusiastically welcomed the military's takeover of power.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commended "the enthusiastic participation" of Egyptians in the voting and the calm and orderly manner in which it took place, deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
But there are other frustrations playing into the hands of the military. Egyptians are increasingly impatient with the persistent protests, the deepening economic troubles and a crime surge. For many, it is the military, rather than the revolutionaries, who are best equipped to deliver the stability and security they long for.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces doesn't really want to be in power but they are the only ones keeping us from chaos," said 24-year-old Kareem Ahmed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. "I voted today for the stability of the country. ... Those in Tahrir don't represent me or the revolution and it is high time they just get out of the square."
But the die-hard protesters were not prepared to admit defeat.
Amie Sultan, 30, said going ahead with the election was an insult to the memory of the 43 protesters killed, mostly in Cairo, in last week's deadly clashes with police. Nearly 900 more were killed in the uprising earlier this year.
"When innocent civilians are brutally murdered and their corpses are dragged into a pile of trash, then we, when we vote, are complying with the orders of the very people responsible for that."
Late Tuesday, fights broke out between food and tea sellers and activists who tried to kick them out of Tahrir Square, witnesses said. The two sides fought and threw rocks at each other on the square's northern edge. No injuries were reported.
The success of the voting has also lent strength to the military's argument that it has a legitimate claim to power and it is sincere about its public assurances that it has no intention to keep ruling indefinitely.
The argument about whether the military council had a right to rule the nation has been at the heart of an ongoing battle of wills with the activists. The protesters say the military's legitimacy as rulers came from the square. In response, the generals have said Tahrir does not represent the whole of Egypt.
"I think the Tahrir people should leave," said Alexandria carpenter Mohammed el-Sayed minutes after the polls closed. "We should have enough trust in the army, After all, they proved themselves these past two days. We need stability now."
With such a small number left in Tahrir, there is talk of ending the sit-in.
Islam Lotfi, one of the founders of the Egyptian Current party that was born out of the uprising, said talks were already under way among youth groups to leave the square.
"We can't win all at once. We do it bit by bit," he said. "The streets and squares will remain a way to extract our rights. Popular pressure is needed."
AP correspondents Maggie Michael and Alexander Besant in Cairo and Hadeel al-Shalchi in Alexandria contributed to this report.