Egyptians have gone to the polls for the second day in a parliamentary election that voters hope will bring about a civilian government, even though the army generals who took over from President Hosni Mubarak have yet to step aside.
Voters in Cairo, Alexandria and seven other governorates flocked to the polls on Tuesday to select members of the country’s lower house of parliament, with long lines forming around polling stations for a second day.
The election, the first since a revolt ousted Mubarak on Febuary 11, unfolded without the mayhem many had feared after last week’s riots against army rule in which 42 people were killed.
Initial reactions after the polls closed at 7pm (local time) suggested that the voting had been relatively free and fair, successfully breaking with decades of severely compromised elections.
“For the first time, and in these elections, we have not seen a general will from the government to forge and rig the election, meaning if there are any violations or mistakes made that we have observed, it is not at the level of mass forgery through political orders by the government,” Dr Magdy Abdel Hamid, head of the Egyptian Association for Community Development, said.
While there had been some violations, he said, they were not widespread enough to have a serious impact on the results.
‘Room for doubt’
However, as election officials prepared to count the votes late on Tuesday, some activists cast doubt on the validity of the election.
Ahmed Aggour, an Egyptian blogger, said he did not vote because he believes citizens have more critical issues to address than elections.
“Basically, that is SCAF [Supreme Council of Armed Forces] stepping down from power and handing it over to civilian authority,” he said.
|While some violations were reported, they were not at the level of ‘mass forgery’ of past elections [AFP]|
Speaking to Al Jazeera from a sit-in in front of the Egyptian parliament, Aggour said: “What people didn’t notice is the SEC, the Supreme Electoral Committee, is the same SEC that supervised the 2010 elections, and is the same SEC that is supervising the 2011 elections.
“So that basically gives room for doubt on whether the elections are going to be fair and free.”
The demonstrators marched in front of the heavily guarded parliament building beating drums and chanting against the SCAF, the country’s ruling military government.
A few streets away, thousands of protesters continued to fill central Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the focal point of more than a week of demonstrations against the military and its head, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Though numbers were lower than they have been over the past several days, protesters remained camped out in tents scattered across the square – where many have been demonstrating since November 18.
Scattered clashes broke out in some areas of Tahrir late on Tuesday, as groups of men began forcibly removing vendors who had set up booths selling food and merchandise throughout the square.
In the ensuing fight, witnesses reported petrol bombs, rocks and sticks being thrown, as the sound of ambulance sirens rang out in the distance.
Al Jazeera’s Evan Hill, reporting from Cairo, said: “A handful of protesters could be seen stumbling or being carried back from the front line with bleeding head wounds, or clutching unseen leg and arm injuries.”
He added: “Neither the military nor the riot police could be seen near the clashes. In the confused atmosphere, some witnesses said the opposing crowd was composed of armed thugs and interior ministry agents.”
Turnout in the election was reported to be high, with many Egyptians voting for the first time in their lives.
The SCAF had extended voting in the first of the three stage process for a second day to absorb the vast number of voter turnout.
“There is no actual or definitive estimate, but I assure you that, until now, it will go above 70 per cent. I hope it will reach more than 80 per cent by the end of the day,” General Ismail Atman told Al Jazeera.
“What we saw yesterday and today was something that exceeds what could be imagined and exceeds the whole world’s expectations.”
Mohamed Kamel Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister, told Al Jazeera that the preliminary voting results of Egyptians voting abroad show that turnout was approximately 60 to 70 per cent across more than 100 embassies.
Independent election monitors up until Tuesday afternoon said there had been a high turnout and one official, representing a number of monitoring groups, said that it could easily rise above 50 per cent.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday praised the “generally calm and orderly” election and hailed the country’s role in the Arab Spring uprisings, his spokesperson said.
Ban “commends the population and authorities of Egypt for the enthusiastic participation in this first stage of the electoral process and for the generally calm and orderly manner in which voting took place,” said Martin Nesirky.
Rise of civilian leadership?
But the elections could be the start of other problems for the military.
A parliament “with a strong popular legitimacy can also in the future challenge the power of SCAF,” said Karim al-Assar, an analyst with the Cairo-based independent Signet Institute.
Already, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is widely expected to do well in the legislative elections, is taking a stance that could set them on course for a row with the SCAF.
The military council has said that it will have the authority to appoint the cabinet, rather than the parliament that is set to be elected in the elections that began on Monday.
But Mohamed Mursi, leader of the FJP, said on Tuesday that a cabinet not backed by a parliamentary majority could not govern in practice – a statement that suggests his party might push for a speedier transition to civilian rule.
“A government that is not based on a parliamentary majority cannot conduct its work in practice,” Mursi said to reporters during a tour of polling stations in the working class district of Shubra in Cairo on Tuesday.
“Therefore we see that it is natural that the parliamentary majority in the coming parliament will be the one that forms the government.”
– Malika Bilal contributed reporting from Cairo