Turnout in the country’s first free poll in decades was high but, despite voters’ enthusiasm, concern still lingered that the military was more focused on preserving its privilege and power than on nurturing democratic transformation.
Frustration erupted last week into violent protests that cost 42 lives, mostly around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, centre of the popular uprising that forced the end of Mubarak’s 30-year-rule in February.
“We are at a crossroads,” Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said, referring to successful elections or “dangerous hurdles” that the armed forces would not allow.
Fears of unrest did not appear to have deterred voters. After a few hours of polling, the election commission chief said turnout was higher than expected but gave no details.
Many analysts expect the Muslim Brotherhood’s party and other Islamists to do well, but much remains uncertain in Egypt’s complex voting system of party lists and individuals.
In Cairo, Alexandria and other areas festooned with posters, voters formed long queues, where many of them debated Egypt’s political future, hoping that for the first time they could shape the destiny of this Arab nation of 80 million people.
“Aren’t the army officers the ones who protected us during the revolution?” one woman asked loudly at a polling station in Cairo’s Nasr City, referring to the army’s role in easing Mubarak from power. “What do those slumdogs in Tahrir want?”
One man replied: “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.”
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.
The world is closely watching the election, keen for stability in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, owns the Suez Canal linking Europe and Asia, and which in Mubarak’s time was an ally in countering Islamist militants in the region.
Political transformation in Egypt, traditional leader of the Arab world, will reverberate across the Middle East, where a new generation demanding democratic change has risen against autocrats who have ruled for decades. Washington and its European allies have urged the generals to step aside swiftly and make way for civilian rule.
There were no reports of serious violence. Scuffles among women voters erupted at one Alexandria polling station that opened late because ballot papers had not arrived. Troops outnumbered police guarding polling stations. Judges and thousands of monitors were scrutinising voting procedures. Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties have 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.