November 28, 2011 / 1:44 PM / 8 years ago

Egyptians enthused by vote after abuses of past

* Calm voting contrasts with violence of Mubarak’s era

* Marathon vote for lower house lasts till January

* Dizzying array of choices after Mubarak’s one-man rule

By Marwa Awad

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, Nov 28 (Reuters) - A world away from the chaos, violence and abuses of elections under Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Egyptian voters queued in huge, orderly lines on Monday, many still in disbelief that they could now play a part in shaping their nation’s future.

Some brought their children. Others clutched briefcases on their way to work. Around them banners fluttered for parties banned under Mubarak, who was swept away by a popular uprising in February after 30 years of one-man rule.

Many Egyptians suspect the generals who replaced Mubarak want to wield power behind the scenes even after handing day-to-day government to civilians, and some fear vote rigging will resurface. But on Monday most people were simply enjoying what for many was the first time they had bothered to vote.

They chatted about the new choices before them, revelling in the novelty of an election where the outcome was not a foregone conclusion before the first ballot was cast.

“Before we knew in advance who was going to dominate. So apathy was the order of the day. Today we don’t know what the outcome will be. Voters are energised,” said Etimad Sameh, 48, a taxi driver waiting his turn in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria.

Nearby, posters were plastered on walls and banners hung from lamp posts urging voters to pick candidates of the ultra-conservative Islamist Al-Nour, the party of the influential Muslim Brotherhood or the centrist Islamist Wasat party.

Those parties were banned or blocked under Mubarak.

Concerns that voting could be marred by violence, after clashes accompanied protests against army rule in Cairo and other cities last week, have so far proved unwarranted.

“There is no fear. That is the main difference you notice about these voters,” said Judge Diaa Mohamed, supervising another polling station in Alexandria, one of the areas included in the first round of the three-phase vote that ends in January.

“There are very old people who have come out because they believe they are participating in a transparent process.”

Judges have been called back into election service. A year ago they were excluded from supervising the last vote of the Mubarak era, which was widely seen as thoroughly rigged.

OFFICE WORKERS AND FARMERS

Queues in Monday’s vote showed Egypt’s social spectrum. Women in Islamic headscarves or wearing Coptic Christian crosses waited beside those in tight jeans with hair exposed. Men in suits stood next to those in traditional “galabiya” robes.

In rural areas, workers came in from the fields. In cities, employees stopped off on their way to offices.

“I am waiting, no matter what it takes,” said Mona Mabrouk, a 48-year-old oil company employee in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.

The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, which spent decades building up a grassroots network despite a ban under Mubarak, is expected to do well. Islamist supporters outside polling stations helped people find where to vote.

In Mubarak’s time, the Brotherhood picked up many protest votes. Now it faces new opponents as Islamist and other parties have emerged in the past nine months.

Headscarfed Heba Salah, 30, said she was voting to prevent the Brotherhood dominating politics.

“I came to vote against the Muslim Brotherhood who abuse religion to attract people and gain supporters,” she said, waiting at a polling station in Cairo’s Nasr City district.

In the past, Mubarak’s party would bus state employees to the polls. In Brotherhood strongholds, the police often stopped people from voting. Tear gas and batons rained down on those determined to vote for the Brotherhood’s candidates, who ran as independents to skirt a ban on religious parties.

On Monday, soldiers were deployed at polling stations, often outnumbering the still hated police force. The ruling army council has promised to ensure a free, fair and secure vote.

“For the first time, we came to vote freely and I feel safe because we can vote without the presence of the defunct National Democratic Party (of Mubarak),” said Musaad al-Sayed, waiting in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, as troops looked on.

STRUGGLING TO DECIDE

Old fears of election abuses and mistrust of the generals resurfaced among some.

“What if they rig our votes overnight? Maybe we should have come tomorrow because at least tomorrow’s votes can’t be lost, stolen or forged overnight,” said one woman voting in an eastern Cairo suburb. Voting will also take place on Tuesday.

Another chimed in: “The army said they will protect the ballots. Our vote won’t be lost.”

Judges said boxes would be sealed with red wax overnight.

Much of the debate in the lines was about who to choose in the complex system of party lists and individuals. There are more than 50 registered parties campaigning and about 6,000 candidates spread across the nation.

Many struggled to decide among the array of options.

“I felt blinded by the number of candidates. Who are all these people? I just took a stab at who to vote for,” said Umm Mai, wearing traditional flowing robes, after voting in Cairo.

But in Abu Suad, a quiet market town south of the bustling capital, Arafa Ahmed Abdel Qader was in no doubt about his choice: the Salafi Islamist Al-Nour party.

“I think they are the best,” he said. “There is no compulsion as there was in the past. The turnout will be big. Everyone wants to vote.” (Additional reporting by Jonathan Wright in Abu Suad, Dina Zayed and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Port Said and Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon and David Stamp)

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