The queues formed early and quickly at polling stations across Egypt on Monday, as voters cast their ballots in the first parliamentary elections since the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak in February.
Large numbers of registered voters turned out on the first day of the three-stage election process, with lines snaking around polling centres under the watchful eye of military soldiers.
In the capital, Cairo, thousands of voters flocked to schools in the neighbourhoods of Zamalek, Nasr City and Maadi – among others – well before they opened at 8am, to stake their place in line.
“I’ve been waiting since 7am [local time],” one voter told Al Jazeera at a polling station in the working-class neighbourhood of Shubra, where hundreds of voters were delayed by the late arrival of ballot papers.
Logistical problems continued to plague many polling stations across the country, with some voters reporting that stations had not opened more than an hour after the time scheduled, as ink used to mark voters’ fingers had not arrived.
“The two problems are this, one, ballot papers arriving very late, secondly, judges are arriving very late [and] some not even turning up,” Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from Shubra, said.
Additionally, a ban on campaigning at polling stations had been broken, with members of parties handing out pamphlets and banners steps away from the ballot box.
Despite the problems, many voters expressed enthusiasm for what they said they hoped would be Egypt’s first truly free and fair election.
“This is the first real vote,” said one voter at a polling station in central Cairo who identified himself as Abdullah.
He proudly displayed his ink-stained finger indicating he had voted, as he handed out flyers promoting the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party outside the polling station.
“Mubarak erased them,” he said of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing is the The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). “Now they have freedom. Even the name of the party is freedom and justice.”
Meanwhile in Assiut, one of the most significant governorates in the Upper Egypt region, there appeared to be an exceptionally high turnout by the standards of the country’s previous votes.
“The lines have not stopped outside the polling centres,” Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh reported from Assiut. “If we’re judging by the turnout, this has been by all accounts a success.”
Women vote in force
Women were turning out in high numbers, unusual for such a conservative region, Rageh said.
There were no signs of violence or coercion, she reported, but there were campaign violations as some parties continued to campaign even as voting was underway. Poor organisation by authorities was also an issue, our correspondent said.
Voters in the northern city of Alexandria began arriving at polling stations not long after sunrise.
At the Sayyid Mohammed Korayib girls school in the Smouha district, women began queuing shortly after 7am at the female entrance, and by 8am, there were more than 100 waiting in line, with longer queues forming at other polling stations and male entrances around the corner.
Armed navy troops in blue helmets guarded the stations, and unarmed police officers directed voters once they entered.
Poll workers opened the stations shortly after 9am, around an hour after the voting was scheduled to begin, but there was no sign of anger among the calm crowds, who seemed anxious only to get inside.
“The people all want elections, all Egyptians want them, except maybe those who started the revolution and are protesting in Tahrir,” said Fathiya Abdel Aal, an employee of the finance ministry’s customs department.
“We don’t condone the violence that they are being exposed to but we must have stability, we simply must.”
Aal said she had faith in God and in Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council, and that she had not found the voting process difficult to understand, as many feared.
Once the doors opened, the process appeared to go smoothly. Military guards allowed maintained a smooth flow of voters, and civilian poll workers were prepared with information and voter lists.
Fears over ballots
In Sayyid Korayib, voters were assigned one of four classrooms, each staffed by a judge and poll workers, who wore their identification cards on arm bands.
Mohamed Aboul Ela, a lower criminal court judge supervising the vote in one room, said the voting had gone well and he did not foresee any problems.
|Jamal Elshayyal reports from an Alexandria polling station|
Some activists and party workers had expressed concern recently when voting was extended to two days, meaning ballot boxes would remain in the overnight custody of either the interior ministry or the military, neither of which is a wholly trusted institution at this point.
But Aboul Ela said he would seal both the ballot boxes and the entrances to the classroom and require the military and police commanders to sign forms entrusting the ballots to them.
If the seals were broken, he would nullify the vote, he said.
Across central Alexandria, brief downpours did not seem to dampen turnout, with long lines of men and women snaking out of nearly every polling place.
The FJP made its presence felt throughout the city.
FJP workers could be seen advising voters on how the ballots had been organised while dressed in hats, pins and vests emblazoned with the scales of justice, the group’s distinctive symbol.
The workers handed out tiny calendars bearing the party’s symbol and name, and erected tents – covered with party banners – where men with laptops helped voters learn their unique voting number and location, while also providing them with party flyers.
Voters are choosing 168 of the 498 deputies, which will form the new lower house of parliament. The vote is only the first stage in an election timetable which lasts until March 2012 and covers two houses of parliament.
In this round, some of Egypt’s most populous areas will vote, including Cairo, Alexandria, Assiut, Port Said and Luxor.
“I am boycotting because I believe it is a circus,“
– Hossam el-Hamalawy, Egyptian blogger
More than 50 political parties are contesting the elections, along with thousands of candidates running as independents.
But the preparations were marred by a new wave of demonstrations, as protesters continued to occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the military council that replaced Mubarak hand power to a civilian government.
Some activists called for a boycott of the vote before it began.
“I am boycotting because I believe it is a circus,” Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian blogger and activist, told Al Jazeera.
“You cannot have clean elections while the police force which has not been purged is in charge of securing the ballot boxes.
“You have to settle the battle in the streets, then you settle it in the ballot boxes. We have to win our occupation in Tahrir Square first.”
– Malika Bilal reported from Cairo; Evan Hill reported from Alexandria