Egypt wrapped up the start of its first post-revolution election on Tuesday after two days of peaceful voting hailed as a triumph in a nation at the heart of the Arab Spring.
On Monday and Tuesday, millions filed into polling stations in the capital Cairo and second-city Alexandria as Egyptians embraced new freedoms won by the toppling of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February.
The interim ruling military leaders in charge since the uprising expressed their “happiness” at proceedings, while UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon sent his congratulations over the “generally calm and orderly” conduct of the poll.
“The election has been a huge success,” declared Ahmed Nashaat, a 29-year-old member of the leading Islamist group the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) as night fell at a polling station in central Cairo.
Turn-out had been high, he said, security well controlled by the army and police, while there was “no vote rigging worth mentioning” — in stark contrast with the 30-year Mubarak era when such abuses were widespread.
Analysts warned, however, that the country faced huge challenges ahead in its long, complicated and uncertain transition to democracy that is scheduled to finish only in June next year under the current timetable.
The vote on Monday and Tuesday in Cairo, Alexandria and other areas was the first of three stages of an election for a new lower house of parliament. The rest of the country follows next month and in January.
Counting began as polling booths closed at 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) and the preliminary results — the first glimpse of Egypt’s fragmented and ideologically split political landscape — are to be published on Wednesday.
The FJP, the party of the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group, is expected to emerge as the largest power in the new lower parliament when final results are published on January 13.
The backdrop to the vote had been ominous after a week of protests calling for the resignation of the interim military rulers who stepped in at the end of Mubarak’s rule. Forty-two people were killed and more than 3,000 injured.
Egypt’s stock market closed up 5.48 percent on Tuesday as investors welcomed the stability after weeks of falls caused by the political upheaval and unrest.
The successful first stage of the election was a boost for army leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who insisted voting should go ahead despite the unrest last week.
The army “played the election card to stabilise the country in the face of pressure from the street,” said Tewfik Aclimandos, an expert at the College de France, a leading academic institute.
Tantawi “expressed his happiness at the way the process was carried out and the high turnout, especially among women and the young,” said Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Protesters last week had again occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, the epicentre of protests against Mubarak, but this time they were calling for the resignation of Tantawi and his fellow generals.
The demonstrations stemmed from fears that the junta, initially welcomed as a source of stability after Mubarak’s fall, was looking to consolidate its power and was mishandling the transition period.
Figures for the turn-out on Monday and Tuesday have not been officially given, but Etman from the SCAF estimated it could reach up to 70 percent — unprecedented in the Mubarak era.
The election “might very well be seen as a positive step in Egypt’s transition,” wrote political commentator Issandr El-Amrani, referring to the “public buy-in” to democracy and “a symbolic shift” from the army to parliament.
He warned, however, about the “incompetent” organisation of the long and complicated election process, as well as the myriad uncertainties surrounding the army’s future role and the transition process.
Each of the three stages of the election for the lower house of parliament will be followed by a run-off vote a week later.
Once final results are published in January, the country will then head into another three rounds of voting to elect an upper house, in a process widely criticised for its complexity.
As well as the Muslim Brotherhood, hardline Islamists, secular parties and groups representing the interests of the former Mubarak regime are all expected to win seats.
The stakes are high for Egypt, the cultural leader of the Arab world — and the conduct and results of the election will have repercussions for the entire Middle East at a time of wrenching change caused by the Arab Spring.