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Egypt Elections: Voters Stream To Polls In First Democratic Elections

First Posted: 11/28/11 06:07 AM ET Updated: 11/28/11 12:32 PM ET

CAIRO -- Polls have opened in Egypt's first free, democratic elections since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, with a sense of optimism, despite two weeks of deadly violence that threatened to mar the event.

Delays at a number of major polling stations across the country caused lines to stretch several blocks long, and in some cases entirely encircling the schoolhouses where voting was set to take place.

"They're trying to make it delayed so that we get angry and go home," a man cried outside a still-closed polling center in the poor, mixed neighborhood of Shoubra, an hour after it was meant to open. "But we'll show them. We will stay here and we will vote."

Reports from Cairo and Alexandria, the two biggest cities scheduled to vote Monday, indicated a number of simple logistical snafus that contributed to widespread delays: judges arrived late, ballots couldn't be located, security plans were deemed inadequate. In one case, it took poll workers several minutes to realize that the purple security ink which indicated who had already voted was in powder form, and needed water to work.

By and large, they were the kinds of problems that might be expected for the first day of free balloting in a country of some 80 million -- a fact that was also reflected in the sense of collective enthusiasm that lingered much of the day.

"I am so happy; this is the first true election in the history of Egypt!" a wizened old man, with purple ink still wet on his finger, said giddily as he exited the voting room in Shoubra. "I am doing this for my sons and my grandsons."

"I'm coming to vote for the first time in my life," said Adel Moussa, 57, who had left his home and business in Hurghada, 300 miles away, to vote in his ancestral district.

"I'm here for the experience. I don't care who wins. I just want to do it and to live in peace."

At the polling location in Shoubra, several hundred men waited in a single-file line down a muddy alleyway. A sense of the newness of the experience emerged: inside, ballots were nowhere to be found; outside, a shepherd tending his goats strode by with a herd of a dozen.

Still, there were some serious concerns about the fidelity of the process expressed throughout the day as well. Many election observers, particularly the secular and liberal ones who played an instrumental role in the original protest movement that brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and helped lead to this moment, fretted that the more established and organized party of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood had an unfair advantage in driving turnout.

Twitter was filled with reports that party workers for the Freedom & Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Brotherhood, were distributing campaign guides to voters in line. (The hashtag #egypviolations was deployed to track reports of this.) The party responded that this was merely an attempt to assist voters who supported the party but were confused about the process, rather than an attempt to campaign or coerce voters.

At the polling station in Rad el Farag, in Shoubra, such "assistance" was rampant, but also nearly universal among the parties, and largely seemed innocuous. At the gate to the women's entrance, the 17-year-old daughter of an independent candidate running against the FJP slate stood handing out cards with her father's information, while her younger brother shouted slogans into a megaphone.

"I'm not with the kids in Tahrir, and I'm not with the Muslim Brotherhood," she said. "It will take a long time for the people to change their minds. We made a revolution, and it was great, but now it's time to move forward."

Still, at the station in Shoubra, like many others across the city, the predominant force was the FJP, who seemed to possess the preponderance of campaign signs and volunteers, and have the most support among individuals in line. The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to fare very well in the voting.

For days, as violence against state security forces resurfaced in Tahrir Square, many of the young revolutionaries had suspended their campaigning, and advocated a boycott of the election. But by Monday, most of them seemed resigned to participating, and committed to voicing an opinion, even if it was in the form of an intentionally invalidated ballot. The Muslim Brotherhood's FJP never seriously considered halting campaigning during the past week's tumult.

Judging by the opinion of average voters, that was a wise move.

"Those kids in Tahrir, they were just a small number, and they don't represent Egypt," Adel Moussa, who said he was voting against the FJP's candidates because he didn't want religious law interfering with his life. An hour and a half later, after he had finally cast his ballot, he said, "I feel great, I feel like a hero, like Super-Man. If things don't go exactly right, that's ok for me. It's all very new for us. But I finally feel like an Egyptian is supposed to feel."

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An Egyptian woman shows her ink-stained thumb after voting at a polling station in the Manial neighbourhood of Cairo on November 28, 2011. Post-revolution Egypt headed to the polls for a chaotic 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. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
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