Polls open in Egypt's landmark elections

Polls open in Egypt's landmark elections

Egyptians have started queueing outside polling stations to cast their ballots for the first time since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising earlier this year Al Jazeera reported

Police were stationed outside polling stations across Egypt on Monday morning as parliamentary elections, billed as the first free and fair votes that Egyptians have seen in over 50 years, began.

But protesters who are calling for the vote to be postponed continued to protest in Tahrir Square.

Voters on Monday are choosing 168 of the 498 deputies, which will form the new lower house of parliament. The vote is only the first stage in an election timetable which lasts until March 2012 and covers two houses of parliament.

In this round, some of Egypt's most populous areas will vote including Cairo, Alexandria, Assiut, Port Said and Luxor. Over 50 political parties are contesting the elections, along with thousands of candidates running as independents.

Many Egyptians remained worried that there may be outbreaks of violence at polling stations, while others have been concerned that the nation remains polarised over the choice of candidates.

The preparations have been marred by a new wave of demonstrations, as protesters occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand the military council that replaced Mubarak hand power to a civilian government.

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reporting from Cairo's Shobra district said: "The army is certainly taking the lead in securing the polls."

'Foreign hands'

Egypt's military ruler has warned of "extremely grave" consequences if the country does not pull through its current crisis.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads the governing Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), claimed on Sunday that "foreign hands" were behind the current turmoil.

In comments carried by the nation's official news agency, Tantawi rejected calls for the SCAF's leadership to step down immediately. Demonstrators had called for their replacement by a "national salvation" government to run the country's affairs until a president is elected.

Tantawi instead promised the creation of a 50-member advisory council that would advise the SCAF.

At least 41 protesters have been killed in nine days of clashes across Egypt and more than 2,000 have been wounded.

The military took power when Mubarak was toppled. It has come under intense criticism for most of the past nine months for its failure to restore security, stop the rapid worsening of the economy or introduce the far-reaching reforms called for by the youth groups behind Mubarak's fall and the ongoing protest movement.

'At crossroads'

Tantawi said the military will follow through with its road map for handing over power.

The SCAF never set a precise date for transferring authority to an elected civilian administration, only pledging that presidential elections, the last step in the handover process, will be held before the end of June, 2012.

"We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections," Tantawi said on Sunday.

He added: "Egypt is at a crossroads; either we succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that. None of this would have happened if there were no foreign hands."

Apparently alluding to the protesters in Tahrir Square, Tantawi said: "We will not allow a small minority of people who don't understand to harm Egypt's stability."

Tantawi's assertion is similar to those made by Mubarak in his final days in power. Tantawi was Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years.

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