CAIRO - Egyptians turned out in big numbers on a mostly peaceful first day of voting for a new parliament, driven by optimism to build a new post-Hosni Mubarak era and the threat of fines if they stayed at home, vote monitors said on Monday.
Democracy campaigners had worried a week of deadly clashes in Cairo and other cities in the run-up to the vote and a history of electoral violence might lead people to avoid polling stations for fear they could get caught up in unrest.RELATED:
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Many, especially the illiterate, were perplexed by complex procedures and long lists of candidates, but still turned up early on Monday to wait for hours in lines stretching more than one mile at some stations, monitors said.
They said it was too early to estimate overall turnout. No figures have been released, but the top election committee official said numbers were more than expected.
The military rulers also reported a high turnout and extended voting hours to accommodate this.
"It's easy to predict that this will be a higher turnout than any recent election in Egypt," said Les Campbell, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI). "We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation."
In the parliamentary vote under Mubarak last November, officials put turnout at 35 percent in the first round of voting. Rights groups said it was more like 10 percent.
Anecdotally, judges supervising at several polling stations visited by Reuters in different districts of Cairo and elsewhere said turnout of registered voters on their lists was about 30 percent or more. A handful put it as high as 50 percent.
But judges stressed these were rough estimates and this was only the first day. Voters were lined up as they spoke.
Some voted on Monday to avoid a 500 Egyptian-pound ($83.30) fine for people who did not vote, monitors said. The fine was rarely enforced in the past but some feared that had changed.
"But there are also many who are going to vote to elect their candidates. When you add both, we expect a huge turnout," said Mohsen Kamal, monitoring supervisor at Al-Andalus Institute for Tolerance Studies, a European and US funded monitor group.
The election, due to run through to mid-January, is a test for the credibility of Egypt's generals who have struggled to deal with social unrest and growing pressure for a quick handover to civilian rule.
The army said it would not allow foreigners to monitor the vote but seems to have backed down, allowing groups such as NDI, The Carter Center, the International Republican Institute and South African, Turkish, Polish and Danish groups to take part.
Alongside 300 foreign civil society representatives are 25,000 accredited monitors and thousands more concerned citizens who have pledged to alert the organizers to abuses.
Monitors Without Borders said the turnout was the biggest in six decades, and was accompanied by a flurry of citizen activism on social networks and YouTube, where people were uploading examples of violations.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said it received around 300 complaints about polling stations that opened late, a lack of voting papers, supervisors falling sick and widespread flouting of a ban on campaigning at the ballot.
The chief of police in Ain Shams, a suburb of the capital Cairo, was suspended because an election area did not have ballot papers before early afternoon, the rights group said. Elsewhere, a judge canceled voting as people surged into a polling station he was overseeing.
"The judge couldn't take it," said Mouna Zulfakkar, a lawyer from the Egyptian rights group, which alerted the Interior Ministry and armed forces to many reported violations. "They have been extremely responsive," she said.
Monitors said they heard of election-related brawls in Port Said, Assiut, Cairo and Luxor but none of the deaths that often overshadowed discredited votes under Mubarak.