Egyptians Discuss Final Stage Of Parliament Vote

The third stage in Egypt's parliamentary elections got underway Tuesday. In upper Egypt, tensions between Muslims and Christians have intensified in the aftermath of the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Qena is a stronghold of the ultra-conservative Salafi movement, and its members have clashed repeatedly with local Coptic Christians over the past year.

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The third and final phase of Egypt's vote for parliament began today. Voters turned out in rural and remote regions where election-related violence has been the norm. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to one of those places, Qena, in Upper Egypt, to hear what jittery residents think of the polls.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Excited male voters thronged the doorway of this polling station at a Qena school, eager to cast their ballots. Many, like Lufti Azib Gerges, were first-time voters.

LUFTI AZIB GERGES: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The 35-year-old Christian teacher says he was surprised by how safe and organized voting seemed.

GERGES: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Gerges adds that even more surprising was the large number of soldiers and policemen keeping order at the voting centers and on the streets.

BASSEM NASR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: It's as if someone pushed a button and they magically appeared, adds local poll monitor Bassem Nasr. Residents complained they haven't seen enough Egyptian troops and patrolmen in their city since Mubarak was ousted from power 11 months ago. That spurred an increase in crime and violence, including extremist attacks on local members of the large Coptic Christian minority.

In November, a Canadian touring near Qena died after men fired on his car thinking it was carrying members of a rival tribe. The insecurity, plus the fact past elections were notorious for clashes, kept the International Republican Institute from sending election monitors to Qena.

Scott Mastic is the Middle East Regional Director for the U.S.-funded group that has links to the Republican Party.

SCOTT MASTIC: In a lot of Upper Egypt, there's more of a tribal flavor to electoral competition with big families having an influence over voting patterns and behaviors. In the Mubarak days, that oftentimes translated into clashes between candidates' supporters and violence that occurred.

NASR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: But Egyptian election monitor Bassem Nasr says today's polls were surprisingly peaceful, save for reports of a fistfight between members of two rival Islamist parties. The parties belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafists who, together, have captured close to 70 percent of the nationwide vote so far.

ALFI AZMY MARCUS: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Qena obstetrician Alfi Azmy Marcus says he worries an Islamist victory here will make life harder for Christians like himself. Several local election monitors claim a recent unsigned letter widely disseminated in Qena warned Christian voters to stay away from the polls. The monitors say they also observed Brotherhood and Salafist volunteers pressuring voters outside polling centers, which is illegal, but that didn't seem to bother most voters here.

One Muslim voter who would only give his first name, Ali(ph), says the Islamists deserve a chance to rule.

ALI: Actually, I don't know why people are so afraid of the Islamic current in the region. We are sure of them, so we will wait and see and if they don't do anything, we will change them, for example.

NELSON: But the Islamists weren't taking any chances in a place where family and tribal loyalty often determine electoral success.

NASR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Nasr says the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party allied itself with popular tribal leaders and important families, just as Mubarak's former ruling party used to do. And one prominent Salafist sheik warned his followers that voting for anyone other than the Salafists is a sin.

The elections continue here tomorrow. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News in Upper Egypt.

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