By Samer al-Atrush ,AFP
CAIRO — Post-revolution Egypt headed to the polls Monday for an election clouded by violence and a political crisis, the start of a long process to bring democracy to the Arab world’s most populous nation. Ten months after the end of 30 years of autocratic rule by Hosni Mubarak, ousted by popular protests in one of the seminal events of the Arab Spring, up to 40 million voters are being asked to choose a new parliament. “It was no use to vote before. Our voices were completely irrelevant,” Mona Abdel Moneim, one of several women who said they were voting for the first time, told AFP as she cast her ballot in the Shubra district of Cairo. Voting for the lower house of parliament takes place in three stages beginning on Monday in the main cities of Cairo, Alexandria and other areas. The highly complex procedure to elect a full assembly ends in March. The backdrop was ominous after a week of protests calling for the resignation of the interim military rulers who stepped in after Mubarak’s fall. Forty-two people have been killed and more than 3,000 injured. By mid-afternoon, proceedings appeared to be passing off peacefully and orderly as the army and police forces discreetly deployed around polling stations where queues formed early in the morning. “We were surprised that people turned out to vote in large numbers, thank God,” Abdel Moez Ibrahim, who heads the High Judicial Elections Commission (HJEC) told reporters. “It was higher than expected.”
Administrative problems such as the late arrival of observers delayed the start of proceedings at a number of voting centers and there were other minor violations of electoral law, AFP correspondents witnessed. “I’m voting for the future of Egypt,” declared Yussuf, a 25-year-old software engineer in the Al-Raml district of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-biggest city and a major port on the Mediterranean. “This is the first free election in our country. I hope it will be the first fair election,” he told AFP. The poll was in danger last week as unrest gripped the country, but military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has stuck to the schedule and called for a large turnout.
Much remains unclear about how the new parliament will function and whether it will be able to resolve a standoff with the armed forces over how much power they will retain under a new constitution to be written next year. The formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group, is widely expected to emerge as the largest power when results are published on Jan. 13. Hard-line Islamists, secular parties and groups representing the interests of the former Mubarak regime are all expected to win seats, raising the prospect of a highly fragmented and ideologically split new parliament. The stakes could not be higher for Egypt, the cultural leader of the Arab world, but the conduct and results of the election will also have repercussions for the entire Middle East at a time of wrenching change. After two days of voting in the first stage of the elections for the lower parliament, other cities and regions will follow on Dec. 14 and Jan. 3.
After these, another round of voting will take place from Jan. 29 for the upper house of parliament and presidential elections are to be held by no later than the end of June next year.