Islamists pull out stops in Egypt polls

2011-11-29 12:26

Cairo - Egyptians voted for a second day on Tuesday in an election that Islamists hope will bring them closer to power even though the army generals who took over from Hosni Mubarak have yet to step aside.

The parliamentary poll, the first since a popular uprising toppled Mubarak in February, has confounded fears of violence after a week of riots against army rule in which 42 people were killed.

The Muslim Brotherhood, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, hopes its grassroots organisation will help it sweep into parliament but it is not clear how much influence the assembly can wield while the generals remain in power.

Monitors said turnout was high on the first day, although no official figure has yet been released. They reported logistical hiccups and campaign violations but no serious violence.

In a voting station in Cairo's Zamalek district, judges put turnout at 50% to 60%. Among dozens of waiting voters were some who were back after being deterred by Monday's long queues. Judges elsewhere had put it at 30% to 50% on Monday.

"I wasn't sure whether to vote yesterday for fear of violence that marred past elections. But the impressive order and security have encouraged me to venture out," said Fathi Mohammed, 56, an early voter in Alexandria, where he works in the port authority. "I'm hopeful this country will rise."

Armed with laptops and leaflets, party workers of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing and its Islamist rivals approached muddled voters to guide them through the complex balloting system and nudge them toward their candidates.

The ruling army council assumed Mubarak's formidable presidential powers when it eased him from office on February 11. It has promised to hand over to an elected president by July, but may seek to retain military perks and power behind the scenes.

If the staggered election process goes smoothly over the next six weeks, the new parliament will nevertheless enjoy a popular legitimacy that the generals lack. It may try to assert itself after rubber-stamping Mubarak's decisions for 30 years.

People of the revolution

"Real politics will be in the hands of the parliament," said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian political analyst.

The next assembly could compete for authority with Kamal Ganzouri, an economist named last week by the army council to form a cabinet, which he hopes to unveil by Thursday. Ganzouri, 78, was prime minister under Mubarak from 1996 to 1999.

The United States, which has urged its longtime allies in Egypt's military to make way swiftly for civilian rule, said early reports on the first day of voting were "quite positive".

Many Egyptians had feared election violence after last week's bloodshed when frustration against army rule boiled over, as police fought repeated battles with protesters in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of the anti-Mubarak revolt.

In a polling station in the capital's Nasr City district, two old women baffled by the welter of obscure candidates on offer, asked some youngsters: "Who are the people of the revolution so we can give them our vote? May God protect them."

Some Egyptians yearn for a return to stability, uneasy about the impact of political turmoil on an economy heading toward a crisis sure to worsen the hardship of impoverished millions.

Others worry that resurgent Islamist parties may dominate political life, mould Egypt's next constitution and threaten social freedoms in what is already a deeply conservative nation of 80 million people whose 10% Coptic Christian minority complains of discrimination from the Muslim majority.

As voting resumed in the chilly, rain-swept coastal town of Damietta, Sayed Ibrahim, 30, said he backed the liberal Wafd Party over its main local rival, the Islamist Salafi Nour Party.

Egypt poll reverberates

"I'm voting for Wafd because I don't want an ultra-religious party that excludes other views," he said, in jeans and a cap.

"It's the first time I feel there are honest elections. Last year it was probably 10% honest and 90% rigged. It was thuggery," he said, referring to the last Mubarak-era election a year ago. "Now the army's doing a good job."

Islamists expect to do well in the poll, but the outcome is hard to predict under a complex voting system of party lists and individual candidates. Full results will emerge only in January.

Political transformation in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, will reverberate across the Middle East, where a new generation demanding democratic change has toppled or challenged the leaders of Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

"It's important for every citizen to vote so this parliament represents the people and their voices reach the government," said Sara Fekry, 29, an advertising agent voting in Zamalek.

But Howeida Hussein, a 40-year-old teacher, said after casting her ballot she still feared the military might interfere in the election outcome.

"They might try, but they will not succeed because the Egyptian people are very aware."

Smooth polling helped Egypt's benchmark share index to jump the maximum five percent allowed in one day's trading.

"People perceive yesterday's turnout positively. It was much better than expectations," Osama Mourad of Arab Finance Brokerage said shortly before the market opened.

Read more on:    hosni mubarak  |  egypt  |  egypt elections  |  north africa
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