Voters in Egypt thronged the country’s ballot boxes Monday during its first election in decades and its first major democratic exercise since the popular protests that ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February.

Citizens swarmed to the polls in a generally peaceful atmosphere despite the unrest that marred the election run-up, where 42 people were killed in protests demanding an immediate transition from military to civilian rule.

Egyptians queue for polls (Reuters)

Individual winners are to be announced Wednesday, but many contests will go to a run-off vote on December 5.

Official list results will not be declared until after the election ends January 11.

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There were signs the election was being held under less than ideal circumstances.

The Egypt Center for Human Rights said Monday it had found 400 electoral violations on just the first day of voting. The organization singled out the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party as responsible for many of the offenses, including offers of financial incentives to voters, the website Bikya Masr reported.

Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, reported it had obtained completed ballots leaked a day before the elections.

Some of the ballots, which were from the Red Sea and Fayoum governorates, contained the names of voters who were no longer alive.

The ruling army council, which has already extended polling to a second day, kept voting stations open an extra two hours until 9 p.m. “to accommodate the high voter turnout.” The Muslim Brotherhood’s party and other Islamists expect to do well in the parliamentary election staggered over the next six weeks, but much remains uncertain in Egypt’s complex and unfamiliar voting system of party lists and individuals.

“We want to make a difference, although we are depressed by what the country has come to,” said Maha Amin, a 46-year-old pharmacy lecturer, before she voted in an upscale Cairo suburb.

Egyptian woman reads ballot (Reuters)

Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly on power.

A high turnout throughout the election would give it legitimacy.

Despite a host of reported electoral violations and lax supervision exploited by some groups, election monitors reported no systematic Mubarak-style campaign to rig the polls.

“We are very happy to be part of the election,” said first-time Cairo voter Wafa Zaklama, 55. “What was the point before?” In Alexandria, 34-year-old engineer Walid Atta rejoiced over the occasion. “This is the first real election in 30 years. Egyptians are making history.”

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties have stood aloof from those challenging army-rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct a vote that may bring them closer to power.

The Brotherhood has conducted a savvy media campaign, assuring skeptics it has the best interests of all Egyptians at heart and will not seek to impose an authoritarian theocratic agenda.

In an interview Sunday, the secretary- general of the Brotherhood’s party told Al Jazeera English his movement’s philosophy was congruent with the existing Egyptian constitution, the second article of which refers to Islamic law as the “main source of legislation.”

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“If you want to know what principles guide our party, let me tell you – the principles of the Islamic Shari’a law, and they are included in the Egyptian constitution,” Mohamed Saad Katatni said. “Our party is not a religious party but it’s a civil party... that seeks a modern and democratic state but with an ‘Islamic reference.’” The Brotherhood has formidable advantages, which include disciplined organization, name recognition among a welter of littleknown parties and years of opposing Mubarak.

Brotherhood organizers stood near many voting stations with laptops, offering to guide confused voters, printing out a paper identifying the correct polling booth and showing their party candidate’s name and symbol on the back.

Many voters engaged in lively political debate as they waited patiently in long queues.

“Aren’t the army officers the ones who protected us during the revolution?” one woman asked loudly at a polling station in Cairo’s Nasr City, referring to the army’s role in easing Mubarak from power. “What do those slumdogs in Tahrir want?” One man replied: “Those in Tahrir are young men and women who are the reason why a 61-yearold man like me voted in a parliamentary election for the first time in his life today.”

Washington and its European allies have urged the generals to step aside swiftly and make way for civilian rule. The US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, congratulated Egyptians “on what appeared to be a very large turnout on this very historic occasion,” and British ambassador James Watt told Reuters the election was “an important milestone in Egypt’s democratic transition” that seemed to have gone smoothly so far.

Men and women voted in separate lines, a reminder of the conservative religious fabric of Egypt’s mainly Muslim society, and where Coptic Christians comprise 10 percent of a population of more than 80 million.

Myriad parties have emerged since the fall of Mubarak, who fixed elections to ensure his nowdefunct National Democratic Party dominated parliament. The NDP’s headquarters, torched in the popular revolt, still stand like a tombstone by the Nile.

About 17 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first two-day phase of three rounds of polling for the lower house.

Egyptians seemed enthused by the novelty of a vote where the outcome was, for a change, not a foregone conclusion.

The army council has promised civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June – much sooner than previously envisaged.

But one of its members said Sunday the new parliament could not remove a cabinet appointed by the army.

Kamal Ganzouri, named by the army on Friday to form a new government, said he had met the ruling army council on Monday to discuss setting up a “civilian advisory committee” to work with his new cabinet, which he said could be unveiled by Thursday.

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