'It Took 70 Years for Us to Get to This Moment'

Egyptians battle long lines and Kalishnikov-toting guards to vote in the first free election in decades.

Millions of Egyptians streamed to the polls on Monday to take part in what they described as "our first opportunity to determine our own fate."

The first day of this two-day round of voting for the new parliament was rife with reported mishaps and irregularities. Polls were meant to open at 8 A.M., but in those districts that voted on Monday there were hundreds of reports of delays of up to five hours. Voting hours were extended by two hours.

Egyptian voters - AFP - 29112011

The Supreme Electoral Committee explained the delays by saying that several of the judges meant to serve as chairman of the local election committees were stuck in traffic en route to the polls and didn't always know exactly where they were. Several polling stations did not receive ballots on time.

At 11 A.M., thousands of people stood in line to enter a school in the Al-Maadi Hamid neighborhood. Policemen were keeping the queues orderly, but at the two entrances to the polls there were soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles, battle vests and helmets.

Salah Tawfik, a sugar trader, waited patiently in line as he conducted business by cellphone.

"It took 70 years for us to get to this moment," he said. "This is the first step toward democracy and people are only beginning to learn how it works.

"I hope these delays were caused by inefficiency and were not directed from above," he added. "It will take us another 10 years to reach full democracy, but I'm still optimistic."

Noha Wamari, 20, a student, said that last year she didn't bother to vote in the parliamentary election, because it was clear what the result would be.

"This time I believe that I am truly influencing my future," she said.

Several voters seemed overwhelmed by the turnout, noting that in previous elections, only a minority of voters bothered to go to the polls. But the turnout wasn't equally heavy in all parts of the city.

In one of the poorest neighborhoods of Old Cairo, only a few voters could be seen at the polling station in the school on Al-Uran Street.

"People here still think that after the voting, the policemen will enter the polling booth and stick in ballots for the regime, so it doesn't matter whether you vote or not," explained Magid Harani, a driver who works in the neighborhood.

"Here there's almost no awareness of what's happening in Tahrir Square," he said. "The people living here are so poor that they are almost totally consumed with survival. Politics doesn't interest them."

Throughout the day, the Supreme Elections Committee and the human rights organizations monitoring the elections received complaints of unlawful efforts to sway the results.

There were numerous reports of candidates or their representatives entering the polling stations to lobby voters. There were many reports of bribes of money or food being offered; in one case reported in Old Cairo, an independent candidate who sells cooking gas was giving out gas canisters to poor voters who promised to vote for him.

There were also complaints about the ballots themselves, which required voters to choose one of 16 parties and from among 140 candidates, leaving some voters totally confused. At some polls, volunteers gave out instruction sheets explaining how to vote properly and avoid having ballots disqualified.

Despite calls by Tahrir Square demonstrators to boycott the elections until the ruling military council commits itself to a speedy transfer of power to the new civilian government, only a few thousand people could be seen in the square on Monday. Most of the tens of thousands who had packed the square in recent days had gone off to vote. Non-voters face a fine of 500 Egyptian lira.

This round of voting for parliament is just the first in a multi-stage process. Next week there will be a second round of voting among those independent candidates that garnered the most votes in the first round, while in six weeks there will be new voting in other districts. Final results will not be known until the end of January.