Voting Begins In Egypt's Parliamentary Elections

Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria are among those voting in Monday's first stage of parliamentary elections. These are the first elections since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Two other stages are scheduled for December and January.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. For the first time since forcing their president out of office, Egyptians are voting for a parliament today. This dramatic moment comes after days of protests so severe that some people wondered if the election could go ahead at all. More than 40 people were killed and 2,000 injured in recent days. The question really was how much today's elections would mean - whether civilians or the military will hold true power in Egypt. But today the voting went forward and our coverage begins with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Cairo.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The lines are long at this polling station in central Cairo, just off a street that has seen much of the fighting here over the past 10 days. Two tanks flank the school doubling as a polling center. It's surrounded by barbed wire. But it's calm here and fears of violence have not kept people away.

JEANNETTE SABRI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sixty-year-old Jeannette Sabri says how she hopes these elections will result in a more transparent and better Egypt.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there was confusion inside the voting booths. For many, this is their first time casting a ballot, and the election process is complicated. There are two ballots; you vote for individual candidates and parties. With over 40 groups and individuals to choose from, it's a bewildering array for a population that's been accustomed to essentially one-party rule under strong man Hosni Mubarak. And so more well-known parties are expected to do well. Among them, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of Muslim Brotherhood. Their representatives were out in force today, despite a ban on campaigning. They were seen handing out bags of sugar in one upscale neighborhood. And their supporters were seen at this polling station too.

MARINA MAGDI BISHARA: They were standing with the flyers and banners over here, which was widely known to be banned.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marina Magdi Bishara says soldiers guarding the polling station only chased the party volunteers off after she and a few others complained and threatened to send pictures to the media. And those haven't been the only complaints. The run-up to these elections has been marked by suspicion.

AMR SHALAKANY: I can't believe we're having elections.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amr Shalakany is a law professor at Cairo University and has been training election monitors. There are lingering questions, he says, about what will happen over the two days of voting.

SHALAKANY: We don't know until now what's going to happen to the ballot boxes, in whose custody they will be. And the boxes don't have seals. They will have keys. And so, you know, who's going to be holding the keys to the boxes between the two days?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Egypt has a long history of rigged elections, and Shalakany notes that the body overseeing this vote hasn't changed.

SHALAKANY: The department within the Ministry of Interior that is responsible for the elections is headed by the same man who headed it a year ago when we saw the worst elections fraud under Mubarak's 30 years. Right? It's the same guy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's also unclear what role this newly elected parliament will actually play. The ruling military council has said it will not be able to fire the military appointed cabinet. Its primary role will be in selecting a committee to draft a constitution.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: But despite the uncertainties, turnout has been robust. And instead, those who called for an election boycott are thin on the ground.

So I'm here in Tahrir Square, which has been the epicenter of the protests against military rule, and most of the people here have advocated against participating in these elections. They called a very large rally yesterday that was sparsely attended and here this morning on the dawn of election, there are very few people here as well.

AHMED SAID: Tahrir Square does not represent the Egyptian people. We are 85 million Egyptians. It's a huge number, and unfortunately we have replaced the dictatorship of the former president by a new dictatorship at Tahrir Square.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ahmed Said is an activist with a group called the Silent Majority. He says most people in Egypt are tired of the continuing protests and want stability and elections. Voting will continue in Cairo through tomorrow. The final results, though, of these elections will not be known for many months. This is a staggered election. There will be several rounds of initial voting in different provinces and then run off elections for leading candidates after that. Egyptians still have a long wait to know if after their revolution things have really changed. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Cairo.

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