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As Egypt Votes, Worries About Confusion, Corruption

Observers call poll free and fair, but complicated rules encourage abuses

CAIRO – Shereen and Ahmed, a working class couple from the Qasr El-Aini area of downtown Cairo, were among the millions of Egyptians who stood on long lines during the two days of voting in Egypt to cast their ballots in the country’s first ever free election.

They said they voted for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Islamist party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that is expected to come out the front runner. But their choice may have resulted less from ideological affiliation than by confusion and lure of gifts. Holding down two jobs, the couple struggles to makes ends meet and neither understood how Egypt’s extraordinarily complicated voting system works. The Brotherhood helped them on both accounts.

 Thanks to the movement’s activists, Shereen and Ahmed got a last-minute explanation of their voting rights and the procedures on Sunday, just a day before polls opened.

 “We were walking home from work and were stopped by some people dressed in suits who had pamphlets they handed to us,” Shereen, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told The Media Line. “So we listened and figured out what we had to do. Since we are both from the Manshiyet Nasr district originally, the man from the Muslim Brotherhood told us that we had to go there to vote.”

The Brotherhood was back again on voting day, when Ahmed said they were offered a free ride to the polls and a gift of meat. “We needed that because it would have been too difficult and long to do it ourselves, and the meat will last us two or three meals,” he said.

Across Egypt and the world, the elections conducted Monday and Tuesday won praise for being conducted smoothly, honestly and efficiently. Voters ignored the anti-government protestors in Tahrir Square and flocked to polling places in the first of a series of elections for parliament and president.

But many have expressed concern that the practices of Mubarak-era Egypt haven’t been entirely expunged from the system. The phenomena of vote-buying and fraud may be less prevalent this time around, but the excruciatingly complicated system of multiple elections and candidacies plays into the hands of those seeking to manipulate the vote.

This week’s voting was only the first of three staggered elections to fill 498 seats in the lower house of parliament. The last run-off vote will take place on January 10. The military council will appoint 10 more deputies. Nineteen days after that, voting for the 270-seat upper house starts and ends on March 11. Ninety of the seats will be appointed after the next president is elected. After a constituent assembly chosen by parliament has written a new constitution, Egyptians go back to the polls to elect a president.

If that isn’t complicated enough, voters faced a bewildering array of choices. Two-thirds of the 498 lower house seats are being contested by proportional representation, using lists drawn up by parties.

The remaining third are open to individuals, who need not have a party affiliation. Of the individual candidates, half must be “professionals” and the rest “workers” or “farmers.” Each constituency has two seats for individuals. A winner must achieve more than 50 percent of the votes or face a run-off with the second-placed candidate. Even this may not be decisive because of a stipulation that if a professional wins a seat, the other must go to a farmer or worker.

Two weeks before Election Day, many voters had no clue who was actually running in their districts.

The Reuters news agency reported that FJP party workers, equipped with laptop computers and leaflets, approached muddled voters to guide them through the complex balloting system and nudge them toward their candidates.

The U.S-based Carter Center was granted limited access to “witness” the vote — not to observe it — but the interim government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), barred most foreign observers, terming it an affront to the nation’s sovereignty. Some 10,000 judges and other officials administered the voting process, but in many cases they arrived late or were overwhelmed by the turnout at the polls.

Journalists, especially those from overseas, said they were barred from entering a number of polling stations to cover the first day of voting. Kristin Chick of The Christian Science Monitor said on her personal Twitter account that she had been subject to a citizen’s arrest and taken to a military officer, who ordered her “to leave the area” at once.

At the end of the first day of voting, a few-hundred violations were reported by the Egyptian Center for Human Rights (ECHR), the oversight body gathering information on the voting process. The center says that despite the security presence at polling stations, a large number of candidates belonging to the Freedom Party and the FJP, as well as some independents, had engaged in illegal electoral activities directly outside polling stations.

Amr Hamzawy, a liberal candidate running in a middle-class suburb in northern Cairo, warned two weeks ago in the independent Sharouk newspaper that the remnants of Mubarak’s “corrupt system” remain, including a vibrant marketplace of “vote-traders.”

It wasn’t just the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) who were out in force, busing voters to polling stations and offering compensation for votes. The Free Egyptians Party of Naguib Sawiris, a Copt entrepreneur and one of Egypt’s wealthiest men, was reported to have offered eligible voters upwards of 100 Egyptian pounds (about $17) for their vote. And people took advantage.

“Why wouldn’t I take this money because it helps,” said one voter at a polling station, taking out the crisp 100-pound note and waving it without fear. “At least I’m smart enough to know that I don’t have to vote for them. This is new Egypt and if we show these people who we are, maybe it will stop the corruption.”

But the mood in Egypt was generally upbeat. In Alexandria and Damietta, voters braved rain and cold to vote. Egyptians are not known for standing in lines calmly, but on Monday, hundreds of women were having no patiently waiting their turn.  In the upscale Cairo neighborhood of, the line to the local polling place stretched down the street and around the corner.

Lifting up her finger, marked to show she had voted, one woman said bluntly, “this is the new Egypt where we vote for our leaders.”

“This is the first time ever in my life that I have a chance to vote and I’m going to take advantage of it,” Mona Hefnawy, a 27-year-old accountant and mother of two, told The Media Line. “I studied and learned about the different parties and who I would vote for.”

Mariam, who asked not be identified by her last name, said the six-hour way to cast her ballot was worth the time.

“We are Egypt and this is what we fought for in Tahrir,” she told The Media Line. “Would I like to see more of the moderates and liberals win? Absolutely, but it doesn’t really matter right now because this is our country and as long as we are able to vote then it will get better and we will show the world that Egypt and its revolution continue.”