Counting under way in Egypt election

Arab World Materials 25 May 2012 10:55 (UTC +04:00)

Ballot counting has begun in Egypt after two days of historic voting to choose the country's first democratically elected president, with the Muslim Brotherhood claiming lead Al Jazeera reported

Early on Friday morning, the Brotherhood, the country's most powerful political force, announced that its candidate was in the lead, followed by a divisive former civil aviation minister more closely tied to Mubarak than anyone else in the race.

However, the overall picture will not be clear for some time. The presidential election commission did not plan to release official results until Tuesday.

If no one wins more than half the votes needed for outright victory in the first round, the top two candidates will contest a June 16 and 17 run-off.

The Brotherhood's estimate was based on results from 236 of roughly 13,000 polling stations. Campaigns were allowed to station observers in the polls throughout the voting and counting process, and the Brotherhood had placed staff in nearly each one.

Though the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, looked relatively secure in his lead, the rest of the race remained unclear, with an ex-Brotherhood doctor, a former secretary-general of the Arab League and a socialist former parliamentarian jostling for second place, according to Brotherhood and local media estimates.

As the morning wore on, unofficial media reports based on campaign observers made predictions impossible, as vote leads passed from candidate to candidate.

Though turnout around Cairo and other governorates appeared to drop slightly compared to Wednesday, the country's presidential election committee on Thursday estimated that around 50 per cent of registered voters turned out.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has congratulated Egypt on its "historic" presidential election, and said Washington was ready to work with a new government in Cairo.

"We will continue to stand with the Egyptian people as they work to seize the promise of last year's uprising and build a democracy that reflects their values and traditions, respects universal human rights, and meets their aspirations for dignity and a better life," Clinton said in a statement.

Divisive candidate

The presidential elections come months after parliamentary polls which the Brotherhood won handsomely.

Parliament was meant to form an assembly to draft a new constitution before the presidential vote, but when the Brotherhood was perceived to be using its near parliamentary majority to stack the assembly's deck, other representatives pulled out and the assembly was shelved.

The rise of Ahmed Shafiq, the former civil aviation minister who served as Mubarak's prime minister in the final days of the disintegrating regime, boosted by a sympathetic and powerful state media machine, was not widely predicted.

He had briefly been disqualified from the race due to his regime times, though he successfully appealed that ruling.

And though he appears to have attracted many voters who yearn for a return to security and normalcy in Egypt, he is perhaps the race's most divisive candidate, loathed by the revolution's passionate supporters.

In what may be a sign of things to come should Shafiq reach the runoff, he was chased from his polling place and pelted with shoes by a mob on Wednesday.

Other surprises on election night included what appeared to be a less-than-impressive showing from presumed front-runner Amr Moussa, who ranked highest in many opinion polls before the election, and a surge by Hamdeen Sabahi, a left-wing activist from the rural Nile Delta who served two terms in parliament and had been imprisoned 17 times under previous presidents.

Meanwhile, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a high-ranking Muslim Brother who quit the organisation after the revolution, remained in the running to progress to the second round, despite a disappointing showing in the view of some analysts.

Aboul Fotouh's campaign had assembled a broad coalition ranging from hardline Salafis to progressive technology entrepreneurs, and how far his appeal would reach was perhaps the election's most intriguing question.

He received the endorsement of the Salafi Nour Party and other prominent Salafi religious movements, who won roughly a quarter of parliament, but they may not have come out for Aboul Fotouh in the same numbers.

Calm process

Polling places in and around Cairo visited by Al Jazeera reported different numbers, with 36 per cent of registered voters participating in some polling centers in the Nazlat el-Semman neighbourhood of Giza while 66 per cent came out at a school in the Moqattam neighbourhood of Cairo.

"This is the first time we will choose our president in 7,000 years," said Mustafa Mahmoud Mustafa at the Moqattam Basic Education School.

Judges and prosecutors serving as election authorities oversaw what appeared to be an orderly and calm process, and reports of violations were few and relatively minor.

Al Jazeera observed authorities instructing voters not to speak to one another and others ordering soldiers - present to secure the vote - out of polling stations.

Near some stations, campaign posters for various candidates remained illegally placed, though at others, soldiers attempted to rip them off.

In Nazlat el-Semman, 50-year-old Sayyid el-Maymouny, who owns a shop on the edge of the Giza plateau and sells tourist trinkets within site of the Pyramids, said he was supporting Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief and Mubarak-era foreign minister

He scorned Ahmed Shafiq, saying he was the true "felool," or regime remnant, not Moussa.

"For a year and a half, politicians have been causing us trouble, and we feel if Ahmed Shafiq wins, it will not go well," Maymouny said. "I used to stand in Tahrir, I used to go to the square during the revolution."

The powers of Egypt's next president are still unclear, since the current constitution - the result of a drafting process led by the ruling military council - is meant to be temporary.

Nile Delta

Voter turnouts were lower across the Nile Delta, including in the working class town of Tanta, despite Thursday being declared a holiday for government workers.

"I was expecting more to turn out but the day was average," electoral Judge Aida Lesheen told Al Jazeera at the Saint Marc School.

The absence of queues at most polling stations was obvious, especially when compared to the crowds who had lined up in Cairo and Alexandria on Wednesday.

By midday, at a polling station for both men and women in Tel el-Haddadin, Judge Mohamed Khalil estimated that about half of the 4,300 registered voters had cast their ballots.

Lines were reportedly low elsewhere around the country, yet the government for the second day ordered polls to close an hour late, at 9pm. Voters reported that the extended deadline was strictly observed at some polling stations and ignored at others where people remained in queues.

Across the Delta, voters repeatedly told Al Jazeera about their top issue: how to deal with the country's youth.

As Hana Badr left a schoolyard to meet her husband, who was made to wait outside, she said she did not care who won as long as "it's a decent man who'll focus on the youth".

"I have children with university degrees who can't find jobs. It's not just Tanta, it's the whole of Egypt," she said.

With unemployment as high as 25 per cent among youth in much of Egypt, voters across the Delta shared the sentiment, but they remained divided on the best candidate to address the issue..

In the city of Mahalla, home to Egypt's textile industry, 18-year-old Mohamed Khairy told Al Jazeera that the youth were being poorly educated adding that "it doesn't allow for critical thinking".

He said that he hoped his candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, would fix that problem.

"There's a lot of energy (among Egyptian youth), we need to channel it properly," Khairy said.

An older man interjected: "I'm voting Amr Mousa or Ahmed Shafiq!"

"Don't get me wrong, I love Hamdeen Sabahi, but he doesn't know how to run the country," he said.

He admitted that the two candidates who he supported most were part of the old regime, but said they would be jailed if they "messed" with the country.

"The people are too powerful," he said.