Millions of Egyptians voted freely on Saturday for the first time in more than half a century, joyfully waiting for hours to cast their ballots on a package of constitutional changes eliminating much-hated restrictions on political rights and civil liberties.
Young people traded mobile-phone pictures of ink-stained fingers that showed they voted. Others called relatives to boast of casting the first vote of their lives. In the well-off Cairo neighborhood of Maadi, a man hoisted his elderly, infirm father on his shoulder and carried him to a polling station.
“My vote today will make a difference. It’s as simple as that,” said first-time voter Hossam Bishay, 48.
The first test of Egypt’s transition to democracy offered ominous hints of widening sectarian division, however.
Many were drawn to the polls in a massive, last-minute effort by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is Egypt’s largest and most coherent political organization after the widely despised National Democratic Party of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last month in a national popular uprising.
Among other changes, the constitutional amendments would open elections to independent candidates, allowing parliamentary and presidential elections to replace the caretaker military government by early 2012.
Critics say that would allow the Brotherhood and NDP to easily outpoll the dozens of political groups born out of the anti-Mubarak uprising, dividing power between former regime loyalists and supporters of a fundamentalist state — a nightmare scenario for both Western powers and many inside Egypt.
Among those most fearful of the Brotherhood’s rising power are Egypt’s estimated 8 million Coptic Christians, whose leaders rallied the faithful to vote “no.”
“If the Brotherhood comes to power, they will not benefit anyone, Muslims or Christians,” Fawziya Lamie, a 39-year-old Christian nanny, said after casting her “no” vote in the Cairo district of Manial.
The NDP is blamed for the rampant corruption and the fraud that marred every election during Mubarak’s 29-year rule, and its members have been accused of attempting to disrupt Egypt’s transition to democracy for fear of losing further power.
Reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei and a group of his supporters were pelted with rocks, bottles and cans outside a polling center at Cairo’s Mokattam district in an attack he blamed on followers of the old regime.
The day was otherwise almost entirely peaceful. The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement said it expected the turnout to reach 50 percent, more than three times the average level in the rigged elections under Mubarak.