Washington Post Talks to IRI’s Scott Mastic About Egypt’s Elections

Egyptians take to the polls with muted excitement
The Washington Post
By Leila Fadel and Ernesto Londoño

CAIRO — After decades of autocratic rule, Egyptians took to the polls at the start of the first parliamentary election since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last winter.

Lines stretched for blocks as Egyptians cast their ballots with muted excitement. After a week of unrest and a brutal crackdown on protests against the military council’s interim rule, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the voting process. As Egyptians voted, the nation was polarized over the trajectory of the Arab world’s most populous country in what many people are calling an unfinished revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, the largest and most organized political force, is expected to do very well in the election, a complicated voting system that will last until March.

Lines formed well before polling stations opened at 8 a.m., a striking sight in a country long plagued by political apathy. In the past, Egyptians understood that Mubarak’s now dissolved National Democratic Party would rig the vote.

International observers were allowed to witness the process in some places as joint forces of police and military protected the voting sites. A team of observers from the International Republican Institute, joined by a congressional delegation led by Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), were struck by the eagerness at the polls on Monday.

But the voting process is tricky, and it was too early to tell what violations may be occurring, said Scott Mastic, the IRI’s Middle East director.

“The country is using an incredibly complicated process to conduct the vote amid a fluid political environment,” Mastic said. “Thus far, a positive sign is simply the enthusiasm of voters.”

In the working class neighborhood of Shubra, polling stations were packed as voters waited in long lines.

Tamer Gamal, 32, said it was the first time he ever wanted to cast a vote.

“I know these are going to be fair elections,” he said. “We feel that the Egyptian vote now has weight.”

Some voters expressed anger about stations that opened late. Gamil Wisa, a university professor, said he had been waiting for hours because the poll official responsible for his district had not shown up by 10 a.m.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “We have been here since 7 a.m.”

Despite a moratorium on campaign activities, some parties continued to pass out fliers. The Freedom and Justice Party was accused of using minibuses equipped with loudspeakers to ask voters for their support on Monday, despite a ban on campaigning. In Shubra, one campaigner from the party was booed out of line for breaking the rules.

Participation was expected to be high among the 17.5 million people eligible to vote in this first stage of six stages of voting. State television reported that based on early morning participation, authorities expected an 80 percent turnout among people in the nine governorates voting on Monday.

In the mixed proportional and individual system, voters were asked to choose a political slate and two individual candidates. If they neglected to choose all three, their vote would be thrown out. Egyptians dropped their ballots in wooden boxes and then dipped their hand in ink to mark their vote.

The election for the 498-seat People’s assembly, parliament’s lower chamber, will last through January after three stages of voting. Voters will then choose the 390-seat upper chamber, known as the Shura Council, also in three stages of voting that will end in March.

Run-off elections for all six stages of the vote will start a week after each round of voting. In each stage of the process voters will have two days to vote, a decision made by the military leaders to increase turnout.

While state officials predicted high turnouts and animated advertisements on state television urged voters to pick the “revolutionary parliament,” the vote proceeded on time against a grim backdrop.

Protesters continued to demand the ouster of Egypt’s military chief, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and his council of generals, who are accused of botching governance during this transitional period. On Monday morning, a crowd of protesters remained in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s winter revolt, to continue their sit-in against the rulers. At least 42 people were killed and more than 3,000 wounded when security forces cracked down on rock-throwing protesters last week in Cairo and other parts of the country.

In Abbasiya, Sami Sayeb Darwish, 58, an electrician, cast his vote for a secular candidate. Outside, secular and Islamist candidates handed out competing fliers. Darwish dismissed the protests in Tahrir Square. The country needs a guiding hand in such an uncertain time, he said.

“It is important until the nation heals and gets back on the right track. How is a country going to survive without a leader?” Darwish asked.

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