No Major Violence During Egyptian Elections

Egyptian voters in Cairo, Alexandria and several other major cities are voting Monday in the first stage of the country's parliamentary election. Turn out is heavy and so far there has been no major violence. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Millions of Egyptians came out to vote today in the first parliamentary elections since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February. The turnout was huge and the mood surprisingly optimistic given Egypt's enormous problems. For one, unemployment is rife, with people divided over the future of the country. And with no clear path forward, instability and violence mark the present. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled around polling stations in the capital Cairo today. She joins us now. Lulu, what was the mood like there?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Well, it was pretty animated and pretty hopeful, surprisingly. There were long lines snaking outside of polling stations. Many people said it was the first time they had gone out to vote ever in their lives. Egyptians have had decades of rigged elections. There were also a lot of women out. In fact, just so you get a sense of what people were saying, here's what one woman, she declined to give her name, but she was filled with both hope and fear, which is pretty representative of what people told me today. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) We're facing really bad time at the moment. I came out to fix the country to make it better. Maybe our votes this time will mean something, but we're worried that there may be fraud and that all this effort will be for nothing.

BLOCK: So that concern there about fraud. Did you see that today? Did you see examples of fraud at the polling places?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, there was a lot of concern about this, and we did see a lot of active campaigning at polling sites. Something that is banned under current election laws here. People were handing out flyers to support candidates. They were giving gifts in some instances.

One of the largest Egyptian monitoring groups has just released its report, and it says they witnessed all sorts of problems with the vote, vote buying, some polling centers stopped civil society observers from entering. The group also said they witnessed, in limited cases, quote, "thugs stopping voters from reaching polling stations." Now, how damaging this will all be to the credibility of the vote remains to be seen. There's one more day left in this round of voting.

BLOCK: In this round of voting, but the voting does go on. This is a complicated process. Why don't you walk us through it a bit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. These are parliamentary elections for a 498-seat elected body, which will be tasked with forming a commission to draft a constitution. These elections are staggered, which means the first round is taking place in cities like Cairo and Alexandria over these two days. But other parts of the country will have to wait for rounds two and three, which will happen over the coming months. So they have to wait quite some time.

BLOCK: And did people tell you how familiar they were with the candidates that they were voting for today?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most didn't really know who they were. They knew who they wanted to see in power, in general terms. But few people knew who all the new parties and individuals on the two ballots they received were. Here's Raya Mustafah(ph). She's a student from Cairo University.

RAYA MUSTAFAH: It is very confusing. The campaigns were just like flyers of people's faces. No one told us what they're going to do, what their plans are. So we don't really know who we're voting for. I had to just like take people based on their names. So I picked two candidates that have Christian names.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And many people, you know, so they voted in a similar fashion.

BLOCK: Who is expected to do well in these elections, Lulu?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, briefly, the Muslim Brotherhood, for one. The Islamist group's political wing is expected to win big. They were out in force today, campaigning still. But how big they win is anyone's guess. People are divided in Egypt. Some people telling us they would vote for anyone but the Muslim Brotherhood. Others saying they supported them wholeheartedly. This is the first time they can really run freely in election. So this will be a real test of how popular they are.

BLOCK: And in the end, Lulu, let's talk about what authority this parliament, once it's elected, will have, especially given the concerns that have been voiced in this protests, in clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo recently.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think that's one of the main concerns. And there's some debate as to how much authority this new parliament will have. Basically, the ruling military council has said that it won't have very much. It will not be able to, for example, fire the military-appointed Cabinet. It will be tasked simply with forming a committee to draft a constitution and that's it. And there's a great debate in this country at the moment as to how much power this elected body should and could have.

BLOCK: OK. That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Cairo. Lourdes, thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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