CAIRO – Ballots never arrived at some polling stations. Judges were so late that voting was delayed by hours in some populous districts. Political parties openly campaigned in violation of the law. And voters puzzled over long lists of candidates.
None of those imperfections seemed to matter Monday, however, as millions of voters defied predictions of violence and cast ballots in Egypt’s first election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last February.
In Cairo, the port city of Alexandria and other large provinces, lines were long, but spirits high, as the first round of staggered elections got under way for a parliament whose main charge will be picking the drafters of a new constitution.
The upbeat mood lifted the country, if only briefly, from the doldrums of political stalemate and street warfare. Egyptians said they didn’t mind the hourslong wait outside most polling stations because, for the first time, they felt their votes would be counted. Mubarak’s regime was known for rigged elections and voter intimidation.
“For the first time in my life, my voice will mean something,” said Mohamed Nassar, 36, who spent hours in line in Cairo’s hardscrabble Seyyida Zaineb district. “I’ll wait as long as it takes.”
The unexpectedly high turnout and virtually violence-free Election Day gave a boost to Egypt’s beleaguered military rulers, who had insisted on going ahead with the voting despite a week of turmoil near Cairo’s Tahrir Square that left nearly 40 anti-government protesters dead.
The fact that the voting went remarkably smoothly gave purchase to the military’s latest mantra: Tahrir Square doesn’t speak for a “silent majority” of Egyptians, who are tired of demonstrations and desperate to see progress of any sort.
“With all due respect and love to Tahrir Square and all the protesters there, I think the rules of the game have changed,” said Fakhr Ezz Eddin, 44, a computer engineer who voted in the mostly poor Shobra district, where the crime rate has skyrocketed since Mubarak’s heavy-handed security apparatus crumbled.
“Pressure through protesting doesn’t affect the military council anymore,” Ezz Eddin continued. “It’s now a political and legal game that Tahrir protesters will not be able to play from there, and not by those tactics.”
That was becoming all too clear to the hundreds of protesters who held their ground Monday in Tahrir Square and outside the nearby Cabinet building. They watched the voting with a mix of anger and trepidation. Many said they had either boycotted the vote or intentionally spoiled their ballots, asserting that any parliament elected under the auspices of the military would be illegitimate.
As the election appeared to go on without major problems, their fury was palpable and the tenor of the square was noticeably more menacing than on any recent day of demonstrations. Some worried that the high turnout would give the council the green light to clear out the square with batons and tear gas.
“We’re now fighting the former government, the same thing we did in January, as if the revolution never happened,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, 24, who was among a cluster of young men wrapped in blankets at the Cabinet sit-in. “I’m worried about what will happen after elections. The process will go on and the council will keep turning people against us … but I don’t care, even if they kill me here.”