Egyptians head to the polls for first vote since historic revolt


Photo courtesy of CNN

Lines of people waiting to vote and holding campaign signs at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 28, 2011.

CNN Wire Service

Egyptians streamed into polling places Monday to vote in the first election since an improbable revolt toppled one of the world’s longest-serving rulers.

Hundreds of people lined up on the streets of downtown Cairo, waiting patiently to cast their ballots in the first round of voting to decide who will sit in the upper and lower houses of Parliament. The lower house will be tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.

“This is the first time in 55 years that I [can] vote,” said Sharif Shinawi, a 55-year-old businessman. “It was never in the history of Egypt, since Adam and Eve, that we’ve had this opportunity. I am willing to wait 10 hours, or until tomorrow morning if I have to, but I will vote.”

In Cairo’s el Manial neighborhood, Mohamed Rida’a Mohamed Abdulla beamed as he left a polling station.

“Before, there was always cheating. Now, I could be wrong, but I think my vote will count,” the electrical engineer said. He said he refused to vote for members of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party, and he said he also wouldn’t vote for the Muslim brotherhood – “even though I have a beard and I am a very good Muslim. I voted for a middle party.”

Meanwhile, crowds continued to gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters have demanded change since early this year. They overthrew Mubarak in February – a major victory in the Arab Spring uprisings – and are now calling for his military replacements to step aside.

Tour guide Mohamed Ali, like many Egyptians, is torn between the ballot box and a revolution he feels is incomplete.

“The election – it’s the chance now,” Ali said. “I’ll go (vote) – and [then] I’m back in the square.”

Problems surfaced in some polling areas. Fliers supporting various parties were handed out in parts of Cairo in violation of election laws. Some people standing in line used them to fan themselves.

“Yes, there have been some limited reports of campaigning outside polls, which is illegal, but the military contained the situation and stopped them or confiscated their campaigning material,” election committee official Abdel Moez Ibrahim said.

He said in general, the election process seemed to be going smoothly, but some “reports of irregularities are related to [the] late opening of some polls.”

Ibrahim said such polls would stay open late Monday evening for the same number of hours for which they were delayed.

Activist Yousri Kamal said ballots had yet to arrive at one polling station in Cairo, hours after polls opened.

“Many people are angry and are starting to leave,” Kamal said.

‘At a critical crossroads’

On the eve of Monday’s election, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – Egypt’s current ruling body – urged Egyptians to vote and warned of “dire consequences” if the nation’s political crisis continues, state-run Al-Masriya TV reported.

Some 50 million people are eligible to take part in the historic election.

“Please go and vote because we want a Parliament that is well balanced from all the parties and groups. The elections will not be successful until everyone who has a right to vote participates. Egypt is at a critical crossroads. It either succeeds, or Egypt will face dire consequences,” said Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

Egyptian voters abroad have already cast their ballots, said Ambassador Ahmed Ragab, assistant to the foreign minister of Egypt. From Nov. 23 to 27, 70 percent of Egyptians abroad voted at embassies, he said.

Elections for the lower house are scheduled to take place in three stages, the last one of which is set for January. Upper house elections will run between January and March.

Egyptians have dozens of political parties and thousands of independent candidates to choose from. The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, one of the nation’s largest organizations, is expected to perform well in the election.

Egypt TV reported that 33 candidates from the revolution that ousted Mubarak have withdrawn their candidacy in protest of the current political circumstances.

The polling is taking place against the backdrop of demonstrations calling for an immediate end to military rule.

At least 42 people have been killed in clashes over the past two weeks, including at least 33 in Cairo. An additional 3,250 have been wounded, according to the Health Ministry.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said presidential elections will be held by June. Military leaders say they will hand over power to a new government when one is elected.

“I fought for these elections in Tahrir Square and even got shot, but I am boycotting them completely. I don’t trust the military one bit … It’s a farce and more people will die in the next two days,” said Omar Ahmed, a taxi driver.

Others expressed confidence and said they were excited about the opportunity to help decide the country’s direction. The streets are full of election banners — a strong sign of democracy in a country ruled for 30 years by Mubarak’s iron fist.

“I believe the election is a good thing. … If we are lucky, maybe we’ll get rid of Tantawi,” said activist Ashraf Nagi.

‘Will never turn back’

Like Ahmed, analysts have warned of increased violence if the vote is not considered legitimate by most.

The elections in Egypt are being closely watched, as the nation is the most populous country in the Arab world and a major player in regional politics. Whatever becomes of the revolution here will have wider repercussions.

“It is easy to imagine a spiraling of unrest and violence if elections are perceived as illegitimate by a significant number of Egyptians or, worse, delayed altogether,” Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Qatar-based branch of the Brookings Institution, wrote recently.

“Since its revolution, Egypt has not had even one national body with real legitimacy. Legitimacy requires elections, which is why the upcoming polls are so critical for both Egyptians and everyone else who wishes to see Egypt move toward democracy and some modicum of stability,” he said.

The country’s military rulers recently appointed Kamal Ganzouri, who served under Mubarak, to his former role as prime minister. He was chosen after then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his government quit en masse, extending months of upheaval and instability.

“I think we’ve had peaks and we’ve had downs. Right now, we’re having another peak. Unfortunately, maybe it’s not the peak we hope for at a time like this,” said Mohamed Ghoneim, another activist.

But, he added: “I definitely think the wheel that has gone in motion … will never turn back.”

CNN’s Ben Wedeman and Ivan Watson and journalists Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Ian Lee contributed to this report.