"The election circus, the noise, the rhetoric, the mediocrity of all the candidates have come to an end and I’m relieved," he said.
 
"[President Hosni] Mubarak's giant billboards and posters that have multiplied over the past month for the election campaign will be removed in days - I hope."

Kareem, the son of an upper-middle class family residing in Cairo's Heliopolis district, considers himself part of Egypt's silent majority. He said that neither he nor his family and friends voted in Wednesday's election.

"Mubarak will win, everybody knows that," Kareem said. "They (the authorities) just want to perfect the charade and give Mubarak the percentage he wants, decide how much voter turnout should be made public and give each candidate the percentage they feel they deserve. What actually went into the ballot box is irrelevant. Why should I even bother voting?"

Turnout

Despite intense coverage by state-run TV and other media, which over the past month have urged citizens to vote, monitors and journalists on Wednesday said few people were casting ballots.

"Voter turnout appeared to be very modest," said Baheydein Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights. "I heard reports suggesting that as little as 3-5% showed up in many polling stations."

Numan Gumaa is one of the nine
candidates in the race

Candidates and rights groups that monitored the elections say regulations were violated and voters were harassed by supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Although nine candidates competed with 77-year-old Mubarak in three weeks of campaigning, most Egyptians have difficulty remembering their names, with the exception of the liberal opposition Al-Wafd party leader Numan Gumaa, 71, a flamboyant French-educated lawyer, and Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party leader Ayman Nour, 40, a wealthy ex-parliamentarian who shot into fame after his arrest this year on charges of faking his recently-formed party's membership.

Despite efforts to convince the public that the elections are a serious step towards a new era of democracy and economic development, the government has done little beyond emulating an American-style election campaign for Mubarak.

Supervision

The run-up to the elections featured a battle between the Judges Club - the de facto union of Egypt's 8000 judges - and the government-appointed Electoral Commission, which sought to control every legal aspect of the electoral process even if that meant excluding about 2000 judges from supervising the vote.

In an act of defiance on Wednesday, many of the excluded judges insisted on supervising the elections and were eventually permitted by their colleagues to do so in dozens of polling stations.

Protesters in Cairo denounced
the elections on Wednesday

The Electoral Commission also refused to allow non-governmental monitors to enter polling stations despite a court order on Tuesday. But in a surprise move on Wednesday, the commission reversed its decision on the condition that monitors get written approval from the commission’s Cairo headquarters to access polling stations.

This caused some confusion among local monitors in the capital, but it was impossible to get permission for those outside Cairo, who saw the decision as an attempt to hamper their efforts.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Nour said that the ruling party and municipality officials were paying people either 20 or 50 pounds to vote and that the ink used on people's fingers to prevent them voting again was not indelible. Some of his representatives could not enter polling stations, as the law allowed, he said.

"They (the authorities) are exposing Egypt to destructive danger for the sake of these petty acts. It would have been wiser for Hosni Mubarak to win by a small margin or even lose, than that he should win in a fabricated or forged way," he said.

Legal disputes

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the coming weeks are likely to witness another wave of legal debates and disputes. In a meeting on Friday, members of the Judges Club vowed to wash their hands of the elections if the vote is not held under fair conditions and their full supervision. If that happens, observers suggest, it will harm the image of Mubarak that the NDP has tried hard to improve over the past weeks.

Women look for their names at a
polling station in Cairo

The judges are not alone in their threats to expose election fraud or improper practices. Kifaya (Enough), the large network of anti-Mubarak movements and groups is preparing to publish a series of eyewitness accounts recording the violations monitored by their activists. Dozens of recently formed civil monitoring groups, consisting mainly of volunteers and young activists, have followed suit.

A large Kifaya demonstration in downtown Cairo on Wednesday vowed to show that the elections were illegitimate. "In the name of 7 million unemployed people, your election is futile Mubarak," and "No to Mubarak the agent," chanted the protesters.

The prime minister on Tuesday had announced that demonstrations would not be allowed, but the absence of police forces on election day triggered a debate among protesters about the government’s motives. "The authorities want to put on a positive image before the international media which is following the elections very closely," one activist said, "But we know this is all a big show and things will get back to normal tomorrow."

But some think it’s too late to go back. Parliamentary elections, which were marred with violence and endless legal battles in 1995 and 2000, are scheduled for November.

"There are lots of new movements for change out there," said Kifaya activist Wael Khalil. "Many of them are fearless. It's true that the situation in Egypt is complicated and change will not happen overnight, but lots of people want to change that."