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Violence doesn't deter large Egypt vote turnout

CAIRO - They waited in long lines for hours to vote, despite a new wave of unrest, fears about a sharply divided society and uncertainty over the nation's future.

For the millions of Egyptians who cast ballots Monday, the first parliamentary elections since they ousted Hosni Mubarak were a turning point in history -- if for no other reason than they were finally getting a chance to be heard after decades of rigged voting.

The outcome will indicate whether one of America's most important Middle East allies will remain secular or move down a more Islamic path, as have other countries swept up in the Arab Spring.

"I have hope this time," said Amal Fathy, a 50-year-old government employee who wears the Islamic veil, as she patiently waited to vote. "I may not live long enough to see change, but my grandchildren will."

Since the uprising that forced out Mubarak nearly 10 months ago, Egyptians had looked forward to this day as a celebration of freedom after years of stifling dictatorship. Instead, there has been deep disappointment with the military rulers who replaced the old regime and a new wave of protests and clashes that began 10 days before the vote.

Adding to the disarray, the multiple stage election process, which will stretch over months, is extremely complicated. Some of the key political players complained they did not have enough time or the right conditions to organize for the vote.

If there was little jubilation, there was hope -- and even defiance -- with many determined to either push the military from power or vote against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups who are expected to dominate the balloting.

"This was simply overwhelming. My heart was beating so fast," Sanaa el-Hawary, a 38-year-old mother of one said after she cast her vote in Cairo. "This is my life, it's my baby's life. It's my country and this is the only hope we have now."

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Female voters appeared to outnumber the men by far, shattering widespread notions in a society whose women are mostly dismissed or taken lightly.

Women waiting for five hours at one polling center chanted: "We will not give up, we will not give up."

In Cairo's crowded Shoubra district, 34-year-old Toka Youssef explained why she was voting for the first time in her life.

"Before, there were no real elections. It was all theater. Now I'm optimistic in the future. These are the first steps toward democracy," she said. "It's a bit confused and chaotic because we've never seen this many people vote. No one cared this much before."

Ever since an 18-day uprising toppled Mubarak's regime and brought the military to power, Egypt has gone through violence, splits in society, a worsening economy and a surge in street crime. Still, people were eager to cast a free vote, even though much is unclear about what will happen next, whatever the outcome.

Many liberals, leftists, Christians and pious Muslims who oppose mixing religion and politics went to the polls to try to reduce the scope of the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral gains.

Also weighing heavily on voters' minds was whether this election will set Egypt on a path of democracy under the rule of the military. Protests this month have demanded that the generals step down immediately because of fears they are trying to cling to power and not bring real reform.

The parliament that emerges may have little relevance because the military is sharply limiting its powers, and it may only serve for several months. However, the vote will give Egyptians and the world an accurate reading of the strength of the political forces at work in the Arab world's most populous nation.

A reliable political map of the nation would also have an impact beyond Egypt's borders, serving as a guide to whether the close U.S. ally will continue to be the main source of moderation in the region and assume the mantle of a key advocate of Middle East peace.

The election is the fruit of the Arab Spring revolts that have swept the region in the past year, toppling several authoritarian regimes. In Tunisia and Morocco, Islamic parties have come out winners in recent balloting, but if the much larger Egypt does the same, it could have an even greater impact.

Some voters brought their children along, saying they wanted them to learn how to exercise their rights in what promises to be the fairest and cleanest election in Egypt in living memory.

Egyptian women walk past soldiers as they arrive to vote
Egyptian women walk past soldiers as they arrive to vote at a polling station in the Manial neighborhood of Cairo, Nov. 28, 2011. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

The biggest complaint Monday was the long wait, with polling stations opening late or running out of ballots. There also was campaigning outside polling centers in violation of the law.

"If you have waited for 30 years, can't you wait now for another hour?" an army officer yelled at hundreds of restless women at one Cairo polling station.

Supporters of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood's political arm, were seen with laptop computers helping voters with information on where they should cast their ballots but writing the information on large cards with the party logo on one side and the name and photos of its candidates on the other. Party supporters also appeared to be allowed to maintain security at some places or help the elderly vote.

"I never voted because I was never sure it was for real. This time, I hope it is, but I am not positive," said Shahira Ahmed, 45, waiting with her husband and daughter with about 500 other people.

Even before polls opened at 8 a.m., Cairo voters stood in lines stretching several hundred yards, suggesting a respectable turnout. Under heavy security from police and soldiers, the segregated lines of men and women snaked around blocks and prompted authorities to extend voting by two hours.

For decades, few Egyptians bothered to vote because nearly every election was rigged, whether by bribery, ballot-box stuffing or police intimidation. Turnout was often in the single digits.

"I am voting for freedom. We lived in slavery. Now we want justice in freedom," said 50-year-old Iris Nawar at a polling station in Maadi, a Cairo suburb. "We are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. But we lived for 30 years under Mubarak, we will live with them, too."

Muslim Brotherhood volunteers man computer stations in Cairo
Muslim Brotherhood volunteers work at computer stations in the street to help local residents find their polling stations for Egyptian elections in Assuit, Egypt, Nov. 27, 2011. AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

In a heavy rain in Alexandria, a line of women displayed Egypt's religious spectrum -- Christians, Muslims with heads bared, others in conservative headscarves, still others wearing the black robes that left only the eyes exposed. Nearby, one soldier shouted through a megaphone: "Choose freely. Choose whomever you want to vote for."

In Tahrir Square on Monday, a crowd of about 2,000 kept the round-the-clock protest going. Clashes during the demonstrations left more than 40 dead.

Standing outside the tent where he has camped since Friday, protester Ibrahim Hassan, 22, said it was wrong to have elections before the military gives up power and when members of Mubarak's ruling party can still run.

"So they'll elect a parliament, but they won't give it any power or let it write the constitution," he said. "So what's the point?"

A Facebook page that played a crucial role in mobilizing the anti-Mubarak uprising indicated how the election has thrown Tahrir's die-hard revolutionaries into confusion. It said everyone should vote but must wear black while doing so in mourning for those killed in last week's protests.

"We will go to the elections because it is the first step on the path of taking power back from the military, who we believe should go quickly back to their barracks," according to the page.

The Brotherhood entered the campaign with a powerful network around the country and years of experience in political activism, even though it was banned under Mubarak. Also running are candidates for the even more conservative Salafi movement, which advocates a hard-line Saudi Arabian-style interpretation of Islam.

While the Brotherhood shows a willingness at times to play politics and compromise in its ideology, many Salafis insist that democracy take a back seat to Islamic law.

In contrast, the secular and liberal youth groups who engineered the uprising failed to capitalize on their triumph to contest the election effectively. They largely had to create new parties from scratch, most of which were not widely known and were plagued by divisions.

"The Muslim Brotherhood are the people who have stood by us when times were difficult," said Ragya el-Said, a 47-year-old lawyer in Alexandria, a stronghold for the group. "We have a lot of confidence in them."

But the Brotherhood faces opposition. Even some who favor more religion in public life are suspicious of its motives, and the large Christian minority -- about 10 percent of the population of around 85 million -- fear rising Islamism.

"I'm a Muslim but won't vote for any Islamist party because their views are too narrow," said Eman el-Khoury, 53, looking disapprovingly at Brotherhood activists handing out campaign leaflets near an Alexandria polling station in violation of the law. "How can we change this country when at an opportunity for change we make the same dirty mistakes?"

For many of those who did not want to vote for the Brotherhood or other Islamists, the alternative was not clear.

"I don't know any of the parties or who I'm voting for," said Teresa Sobhi, a Christian voter in the southern city of Assiut. "I'll vote for the first names I see, I guess."

The election will be held over multiple stages, with different provinces taking turns to vote with each round. Voting for 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will last until January, then elections for the 390-member upper house will drag on until March.

Each round lasts two days. Some voters said they feared vote-rigging because the ballot boxes would be left at polling stations overnight. Monday and Tuesday's vote takes place in nine provinces whose residents account for 24 million of Egypt's estimated 85 million people.

The ballots are a confusing mix of party lists that will gain seats according to proportions of votes and individual candidates who will have to enter runoffs after each round if no one gets 50 percent in the first round.

Mixed in are candidates labeled as "farmer" or "worker" who must gain a certain number of seats, a holdover from the Mubarak regime, which manipulated the process to elect his cronies.

A parliament dominated by Islamists but without any significant powers could potentially provide the spark for an open conflict with the generals. On the other hand, a clean and fair vote would give legitimacy to the election and credibility to the military at a time when the Tahrir Square protesters are trying to convince everyone that the generals are not serious about reform.

A high turnout among the estimated 50 million voters could water down the showing of the Brotherhood, since its core of supporters are the most likely to vote, hurting the standing of the Tahrir activists. A low turnout would undermine the credibility of the election and boost some of the prestige the Tahrir activists.

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