Egyptians voted yesterday in the country's first-ever contested presidential election, with fraud charges and scattered protests immediately surfacing in a ballot the government touts as a major democratic reform although longtime President Hosni Mubarak is almost certain to win.
Among the fraud accusations that popped up shortly after polls opened at 8am: That election workers inside polls in Luxor were telling voters to choose Mubarak and even filling out ballots themselves, and that Alexandria voters were promised food by ruling-party workers if they cast a vote.
Egypt says the decision to allow competitors to run against Mubarak signals a move toward greater democracy in a country that has seen only authoritarian rule for more than a half century.
Opponents, however, dismiss the reform claims as a sham. They note that Mubarak's ruling party controls most of the government, including the electoral process. And they argue the wide publicity given Mubarak by state-owned media made it difficult for opposition candidates to gain wide support.
One anti-Mubarak group, Kifaya, drew 400 people into Cairo's main square at noon for a protest. Anti-riot police stayed away despite pre-election warnings that the government would not tolerate street protests.
"In the name of 1 million unemployed, your nomination, Oh Mubarak, is null," chanted the protesters, who had called for a vote boycott.
Turnout was expected to be low overall because many Egyptians, deeply alienated from a government they see as doing nothing, are unused to voting and believe their votes won't make a difference.
Other Egyptians seem to genuinely fear change and said they would freely vote for the candidate they know, Mubarak, long seen as the country's father and protector.
"I can't take a risk at a time like this because this is the destiny of a country," said Mohammed Shahat Bilal, 58-year-old welder in Alexandria. "We don't want what happened in Iraq to happen here. We want a stable country."
Nine candidates are running against Mubarak, but only two are considered significant, Ayman Nour of the al-Ghad Party and Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd. Nour, a young, media-savvy and controversial candidate, is certain to gain some votes in his Cairo base. Gomaa heads the oldest opposition party, which has some power bases in scattered towns.
Nour, after voting in his Cairo neighborhood, said he hoped elections would be "conducted with transparency. And if this happens it will be a big achievement for Egypt."
Mubarak was among the first to vote, casting his ballot in a school close to the presidential palace, accompanied by his wife and son Gamal, a rising politician.
Judges were monitoring yesterday's vote. But the election commission, made up of judges appointed by Mubarak, rejected an administrative court ruling allowing independent monitors inside poll stations, leading many opposition groups to fear fraud.