The recent spike in violence, which has claimed 41 lives, failed to deter polling on Monday in Egypt's first parliamentary elections after the exit of the former President, Hosni Mubarak.
The elections, if conducted successfully, will mark a major advance in the transition from an oligarchy to a genuine democracy, brought about by a popular revolt.
On Monday, voters elected 168 of the 498 lawmakers of the People's Assembly, which is to begin its session on March 17. Ten deputies will be nominated to this Lower House by the controversial Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The current round was in some of Egypt's most populous areas, including Cairo, Alexandria, Assiut, Port Said and Luxor. Over 50 parties are contesting these elections, along with thousands of independents.
As the three-phase polls — a complex exercise involving 50 million voters — commenced, protests calling for an end to military rule under SCAF continued to rock Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt's rolling revolution.
But brushing aside the protesters' energetic call for a civilian authority to steer the transition to democracy and postponement of elections, the military gave a dark warning that it would not tolerate dissent on this count. “Either we succeed — politically, economically and socially — or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that,” said SCAF leader Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi in a statement on Sunday. He also attributed the current round of searing unrest to an unsubstantiated “foreign” hand.
Tantawi stands firm
In the run-up to the polls, the SCAF chief further magnified his profile. He backed his assertion against postponement of the polls with a high-profile visit on Monday to polling stations at Cairo's upscale Heliopolis and Nasr city areas.
In Tahrir Square, some protesters warned that the Field Marshall, a Mubarak-era loyalist for decades, had ambitions of becoming Egypt's next dictator.
Analysts say a decision not to delay the poll is likely to benefit the Islamists, especially the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Al-Nour party. The Muslim Brotherhood had withdrawn from the ongoing Tahrir protests, exposing itself to criticism that it has been colluding with SCAF to assume power.
As polling stations opened, voters from the poorer Cairo neighbourhoods thronged polling booths — a sign that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a wide following in such areas where it provides basic services, might benefit.
Administrative snags hampered polling in some stations. Polling was apparently delayed in a north Cairo district because ballot papers did not arrive on time, triggering protests in which hundreds participated, Al Ahram Online reported on its website. Anomalies, including some serious ones such as ballot stuffing, were reported from south Cairo, Alexandria and Assiut. Abdel Moez, head of the Supreme Electoral Commission, said at a press conference that mistakes had occurred because the first round of polling was an “experimental” one.
In a separate development, but indicative of nationwide turbulence, saboteurs attacked a pipeline carrying gas to Israel and Jordan. Witnesses said they saw masked men driving away from the pipeline near the town of Arish before it exploded.