Egyptians voted on Monday in their first election since a popular revolt ousted Hosni Mubarak, amid fears the generals who replaced the deposed leader would try to cling on to power.
In the nine months since the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.
Frustration erupted last week into violent protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July.
In Cairo, Alexandria and other areas, voters stood patiently in long queues, many of them debating Egypt’s political future that for the first time they believed they could shape.
“Aren’t the army officers the ones who protected us during the revolution? What do those slumdogs in Tahrir want?” one woman asked loudly at a polling station in Cairo’s Nasr City.
“Those in Tahrir are young men and women who are the reason why a 61-year-old man like me voted in a parliamentary election for the first time in his life today,” one man replied politely.
About 17 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first two-day phase of three rounds of polling for the lower house, which will be completed on January 11.
Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.
“We are at a crossroads,” Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said on Sunday.
“There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt toward safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow.”
The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing their grip on power as provoking instability in the most populous Arab nation.
Tents of protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule still stood in Tahrir Square, but after heavy overnight rain, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak revolt was far from crowded.
There were no reports of serious election-day violence. But scuffles among women voters erupted at one Alexandria polling station that opened late because ballot papers had not arrived.
At least 1,000 people were queuing outside one polling station in Cairo’s Zamalek district when it opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT). “We are very happy to be part of the election,” said first-time voter Wafa Zaklama, 55. “What was the point before?”
In Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, men and women voted in separate queues. Campaign posters for Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Salafi Nour Party and the moderate Wasat Party festooned streets. Troops outnumbered police guarding polling stations.
“This is the first real election in 30 years. Egyptians are making history,” said Walid Atta, 34, an engineer waiting to vote at a school on his way to work in Alexandria.
The segregated voting for men and women in Alexandria and many other places was a reminder of the conservative religious fabric of Egypt’s mainly Muslim society, where Coptic Christians comprise 10 percent of a population of more than 80 million.
A host of parties have been formed since the removal of Mubarak, who routinely rigged elections to ensure that his now-dissolved National Democratic Party dominated parliament.
Under a complex electoral system, voters pick both party lists and individual candidates.
In the Nile Delta city of Damietta, some voters said they would punish the Brotherhood for its perceived opportunism.
“I think the Brotherhood has lost more in the past three months than it built in the last three decades,” said tour operator Ayman Soliman, 35, adding that his vote would go to the moderate Islamist Wasat Party.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has formidable advantages that include a disciplined organization, name recognition among a welter of little-known parties and a record of opposing Mubarak long before the popular revolt that swept him from power.
Brotherhood organizers stood near many polling stations with laptops to help people find where they should vote, printing out a paper with the FJP candidate’s name and symbol on the back.
Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the vote was the first benchmark in Egypt’s transition.
“If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don’t believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.”
But Egyptians seemed enthused by the novelty of a vote where the outcome was, for a change, not a foregone conclusion.
“We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation, as evidenced by long lines at polling stations, and it appears to be a genuine contest,” said Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.
The army council has promised civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June - much sooner than previously envisaged.
Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly of power.
Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said on Sunday the new assembly would have no right to remove an army-appointed government using its “presidential” powers.
On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice quickly rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee the transition to democracy.
The military had envisaged that once upper house elections are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Maha El Dahan and Tom Perry in Cairo, Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta, Yusri Mohamed in Port Said and Jonathan Wright in Fayoum; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Maria Golovnina