Egypt- Long Lines for a Vote Clouded -Army`s Role

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Egyptian soldiers guarded the entrance to a polling station Photo:NewsBureau    Gallery Enlarge Image

By S Kumar
Date  28 Nov 2011

Unexpectedly  large crowds of voters turned out on Monday to cast their votes in Egypt’s first parliamentary election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a ballot that seemed to blend vindication of the democratic struggle with uncertainty over the revolution’s final outcome.

By 9 a.m., voters had formed long and peaceful lines under the watchful eyes of a heavy police and army guard to cast votes in rich and poor neighborhoods across Cairo. In several places, lines stretched as long as a block along the banks of the Nile, and there were similar reports from Alexandria and Port Said.

In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s democracy struggle, several thousand protesters maintained their 10-day occupation to press demands for the immediate end to military rule. But that did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm shown by some Egyptians for the vote.

At several polling stations around Cairo, voters reported frustrating delays of up to four hours because ballots or voter lists or even the supervising judges had not arrived on time, and a news report said soldiers fired in the air in at least one of the capital’s slums to disperse an angry crowd trying to reach a polling station.

For all that, Egyptians displayed little of the pride and exultation that Tunisians described as they went to the polls for the first vote of the Arab Spring just one month ago. Instead, voters in Egypt talked of duty and defiance, of a determination to exercise the rights they believed their revolution had earned them even though few expressed much confidence in the integrity of the vote count.

At a polling place in the Cairo neighborhood of Shobra, voters laughed at their own stubborn determination to cast ballots they had little faith would make a difference: “If a sick person is dying,” ran a joke making its way down the queue, “you still have to get him to the hospital.”

Many political parties ignored election rules prohibiting them from passing out leaflets on the day of the polls. Crowds of young men handed out fliers advertising parties or candidates at the doors to several polling places, and the grounds inside were littered with them.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the group that defined Islamist politics, was poised to win a dominant role in the Parliament of the country that for nearly six decades was the paradigmatic secular dictatorship of the Arab world.

The Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party was by far the best organized. It set up small teams of young me with laptop computers at strategic intersections around Cairo to help voters locate their polling places, and while they graciously helped anyone regardless of their affiliation, they handed them the location information on slips of paper printed with the logo and candidates.

At some polling places, teams of Brotherhood members wearing the insignia of the Freedom and Justice Party were on hand to help maintain security, and they could be seen performing services like escorting elderly women to specially designated lines.

But election monitors and human rights groups said the irregularities appeared to reflect predictable disorganization more than a conspiracy to the influence the outcome, and the unexpectedly large turnout overshadowed all else.

Some human rights activists said it appeared that for the first time in more than six decades, a Parliament with the legitimacy of a democratic election would represent the will of Egyptian people.

“It is the usual messiness,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “But if the turnout remains as high as it looks, ultimately that is what matters, right?,” she said. “If this continues through the end of tomorrow, that will be enough to carry the process through. This will be a legitimate Parliament.”

The prospect of that historic turn has been largely overshadowed here by another, more urgent contest unfolding outside the voting booths: between the military council that seized power at Mr. Mubarak’s ouster last February and a resurgent protest movement demanding the council’s exit.

The ruling generals have defied a week of protests to reiterate, more forcefully than ever in recent days, that they expect to yield almost no authority to the new Parliament, and might claim special permanent powers under the new constitution that the Parliament is to write. The council’s top officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, declared on Sunday that “the position of the armed forces will remain as it is — it will not change in any new constitution.”

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