Egypt chooses leader in landmark vote
Veteran leader all but certain to head off all challengers amid reports of widespread irregularities.
By Jean-Marc Mojon - CAIRO
Egyptians voted Wednesday in the country’s first contested presidential election with veteran leader Hosni Mubarak all but certain to head off all challengers amid reports of widespread irregularities.
The electoral commission described turnout as "remarkable" but confusion marked Egypt’s democratic experiment as many voters searched in vain for their polling stations and monitors reported being beaten up and interrogated.
Scuffles broke out between security forces and several hundred supporters of the anti-Mubarak Kefaya (Enough) movement who demonstrated in favour of a poll boycott in central Cairo.
Mubarak, the 77-year-old former air force commander who has ruled the Arab world’s most populous nation for 24 years, was the first of the 10 candidates to cast his ballot and was greeted by a large group of chanting supporters.
Mubarak’s most serious rival in his bid for a fifth term, 40-year-old Ghad party leader Ayman Nur, hailed the poll as a "defining moment in Egypt’s history."
It is the first election where Mubarak has faced challengers and follows intense international and domestic pressure for reform in a country still ruled under a state of emergency imposed after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
Voters who trickled to polling stations in Cairo did not appear to have any illusions about the result, which an official predicted would not be announced before Thursday night.
Most of the other candidates are unknown even to most Egyptians.
"I think I will vote for Mubarak. He is old and has nothing to lose anymore. Maybe he will decide to leave a legacy of democracy. The others are too thirsty for power and money," said 27-year-old truck driver Amr Ezz al-Arab from Cairo’s City of the Dead.
"I don’t think he will deliver on his campaign pledges to create jobs and build factories, but Mubarak is our fate," unemployed 49-year-old Alaeddin Mahmud, also a resident of one of the world’s largest inhabited cemeteries.
Although no figures were available for turnout among the 32 million voters, AFP correspondents and independent Egyptian groups monitoring the process said participation was low in cities and higher in rural areas.
But Ahmed Ezz, a senior member of Mubarak’s campaign, said the ruling National Democratic Party was conducting a massive nationwide campaign to get its 12 million supporters out to vote.
Independent monitors reported a litany of irregularities at polling stations, complaining they had been beaten, apprehended and interrogated by security services in several places.
Several rights groups said Mubarak supporters actively campaign throughout the day and reported that some had voted on behalf of other people.
Delegates for Nur’s Ghad party cited the case of a man who arrived at a polling station in southern Egypt only to find out that somebody had already voted for him and reported on places where indelible ink was not being used, or where no identity papers were being requested.
Mubarak, the Arab world’s second longest serving leader after Libya’s Moamar Kadhafi, is at little risk of being dragged into a second round showdown, so the level of turnout will be key in legitimising his victory.
In a new-style campaign crafted by his influential son and possible successor Gamal, Mubarak appealed to the country’s poor, pledging to create more than four million jobs and increase wages.
The man dubbed "the last Pharaoh" was re-elected in 1999 with 93.79 percent of the vote but according to independent estimates, turnout reached barely 10 percent in the previous elections he won unopposed.
The regime has trumpeted the poll as a watershed in the country’s democratisation, but the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt’s best-organised opposition force - was barred from fielding a candidate as it remains banned.
Most of the 9,865 polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) and are due to close at 10:00 pm (1900 GMT) but some reports suggested polling could be extended to make up for time lost in the confusion.
The electoral commission issued a statement two hours after polling began to authorise independent groups to monitor the voting but the order did not appear to be effectively relayed to polling stations.
Although Nur managed to raise his profile as the leading opposition candidate, many observers predict the second spot could be clinched by Numan Gumaa, who chairs the liberal Wafd party but has been branded the regime’s token opposition candidate.
"We want new blood after 24 years of failure. But we must put an end to this by a peaceful uprising not through an election, because we know the regime will tamper with the results," protestor and Labour party leader Magdi Hussein said at the Kefaya demonstration.