Egyptians voted on Tuesday in a parliamentary election that Islamists hope will sweep them closer to power, even though the army generals who took over from President Hosni Mubarak have yet to step aside.
The election, the first since a revolt ousted Mubarak on February 11, unfolded without the mayhem many had feared after last week’s riots against army rule in which 42 people were killed.
General Ismail Atman, a ruling army council member, said he had no firm figure, but that turnout would exceed 70 percent of the 17 million Egyptians eligible to vote in the first round that began on Monday. “I hope it will reach more than 80 percent by the end of the day,” he told Al Jazeera television.
Atman was also quoted by Al-Shorouk newspaper as saying the election showed the irrelevance of protesters demanding an end to military rule in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere.
Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, one of many groups monitoring the poll, said earlier it was “a fair guess” that turnout would exceed 50 percent, far above the meagre showings in rigged Mubarak-era elections.
The United States and its European allies are watching Egypt’s vote torn between hopes that democracy will take root in the most populous Arab nation and worries that Islamists hostile to Israel and the West will ride to power on the ballot box.
They have faulted the generals for using excessive force on protesters and urged them to give way swiftly to civilian rule.
The well-organised Muslim Brotherhood, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, said its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), had done well in the voting so far.
“The Brotherhood party hopes to win 30 percent of parliament,” senior FJP figure Mohamed El-Beltagy told Reuters.
The leader of the ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist al-Nour Party, which hopes to siphon votes from the Brotherhood, said organisational failings meant the party had under-performed.
“We were not dispersed across constituencies, nor were we as close as needed to the voter. Other parties with more experience rallied supporters more effectively,” Emad Abdel Ghafour said in the coastal city of Alexandria, seen as a Salafi stronghold.
But he told Reuters the party still expected to win up to half of Alexandria’s 24 seats in parliament and 70 to 75 nationwide out of the assembly’s 498 elected seats.
Abou Elela Mady, head of the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, made no predictions, but praised the turnout and said the party would accept the result despite electoral violations.
Soldiers guarded one banner-festooned Cairo voting station, where women in Islamic headscarves or Western clothes queued with their families. Judges kept an amiable eye on proceedings.
Islamists did not instigate the Arab uprisings that have shaken Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but in the last two months, Islamist parties have come out top in parliamentary elections in Morocco and post-revolutionary Tunisia.
Egyptian Islamists want to emulate those triumphs, but it is unclear how much influence the previously toothless parliament in Cairo can wield while the generals remain in power.
If the election process goes smoothly, the new assembly will enjoy a popular legitimacy the generals lack and may assert itself after rubber-stamping Mubarak’s decisions for 30 years.
“Real politics will be in the hands of the parliament,” said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian political analyst.
One general has said parliament will have no power to remove an army-appointed cabinet due to run Egypt’s daily affairs until a promised presidential poll heralds civilian rule by July.
The army council assumed Mubarak’s formidable presidential powers when it eased him from office on February 11. Many Egyptians praised the army’s initial role, but some have grown angry at what they see as its attempts to retain its perks and power.
The election is taking place in three regional stages, plus run-off votes, in a complex system that requires voters to choose individual candidates as well as party lists. Full results will be announced after voting ends on January 11.
Election monitors have reported logistical hiccups and campaign violations but no serious violence.
Armed with laptops and leaflets, party workers of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and its Islamist rivals have approached muddled voters to guide them through the balloting system and nudge them toward their candidates.
In the Nile Delta town of Kafr el-Sheikh, Muslim Brotherhood workers were selling cut-price food in a tent where they also distributed flyers naming the FJP candidates in the area.
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 percent Coptic Christian minority complains of discrimination from the Muslim majority.
Copts, like Muslims, were voting in greater numbers than in the Mubarak era. “Before, the results were known in advance, but now we have to choose our fate,” said Wagdy Youssef, a 45-year-old company manager in Alexandria.
“Copts like others want civilian rule,” he said. “I voted for Muslims because they represented moderate views and stayed away from a few Christians on the lists I saw as extremist.”
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 Salafi Nour Party.
“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.