Egypt election commission says turnout 'massive'

The head of Egypt's election commission said turnout was “massive and unexpected” for the first elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, with millions participating peacefully in a spirit of hopefulness that surprised many after new protests broke out in the days leading up to the vote.

Long lines formed again Tuesday at polling centers around the capital Cairo and other cities on the second and final day of the first round of parliamentary elections. The historic election — which promises to be the country's fairest and cleanest in living memory — will indicate whether one of America's most important Middle East allies will turn down a more Islamic path with powerful religious parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood expected to dominate.

“I am voting for this country's sake. We want a new beginning,” said Zeinab Saad, 50, who brought her young daughter to a polling station in Cairo. “It's a great thing to feel like your vote matters.”

The head of the High Election Commission, Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim, said late Monday night that the turnout on the first day was surprisingly strong. He did not give any figures.

There were numerous reports of election violations by party activists, most over campaigning close to polling sites while voting was under way.

“It is a crime punishable by law,” Ibrahim said of such violations. He also said some polling centers witnessed delays and three were closed following scuffles. He said one polling center was closed after the commission found a policeman forging ballots for a candidate in the southern city of Luxor.

The huge turnout Monday — some voters waited in line for seven hours or more — was the biggest surprise so far in these elections. On the eve of the vote, the country was in turmoil, deeply divided and confused after 10 days of new protests and clashes involving young activists demanding the country's military rulers hand power immediately to a civilian authority. Among other problems, the unrest raised fears of violence at the polling stations, which never came to pass.

Instead, Egyptians showed a fierce determination to exercise the right to vote freely for the first time ever in their lives. Past elections had been heavily rigged and turnout was tepid, sometimes in the single digits at times.

This time around, some hoped their votes would help push the military from power, while others were trying to keep the rising Islamist parties in check.

Many in the country are frustrated with how the military rulers who took over from Mubarak have been handling the transition over the past 10 months. Some critics say the military rulers are no different from the old regime, still enforcing emergency laws, rounding up thousands and putting them on trial in military courts, and perhaps most seriously, trying to cling to power.

A good number of Egyptians harbor deep doubts about the legitimacy and the relevance of the parliament that will emerge from an electoral process conducted entirely under military rule.

The military will sharply limit the powers of the parliament that emerges and it may only serve for several months. Remnants of Mubarak's old regime, except the few who are in jail or on trial, were allowed to run freely in these elections, something that for the youthful activists behind Mubarak's ouster detracts from the legitimacy of the vote.

However, others saw it as a historic turning point if for no other reason than they were finally getting a chance to be heard. There was a glimmer of hope that this could be the beginning of a real political transformation.

The election will give the clearest picture in decades of the real strength of the various political forces in this nation of 85 million.

The voting process, long and complicated, is staggered over the next six weeks across 27 provinces, divided into thirds with runoffs held a week after the first round in each location.

Voters have to pick two individuals and one alliance or party slate — a mechanics that has left many among the 50 million eligible voters puzzled and apparently still undecided.

While the overwhelming majority spoke with excitement over getting to cast their ballot, a few headed to the polls to avoid a 500 Egyptian pounds ($85) fine imposed by the ruling military on absent voters. In some of the country's populous districts, younger voters dragged their elders to make sure they would not have to pay the fine.

“I am voting here just because of the 500 Egyptian pounds,” said Walaa Mohammed, a 33-year-old office employee, adding she didn't think the lines outside polling stations would not be so long if it were not for the fine.

In the Menshiya neighborhood in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, long separate lines of men and women waited patiently in front of polling stations, where the ground was littered with Muslim Brotherhood flyers as activists campaigned into the last minute, whispering to voters to pick their candidates.

____

Al-Shalchi reported from Alexandria. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.

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