Egypt’s main Islamist group claimed an early lead as officials counted ballots from parliamentary elections that offer the first test of the parties competing to run the country after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Mohammed el-Beltagy, an official at the Freedom and Justice Party set up by the Muslim Brotherhood, said the party may have won at least 40 percent of votes counted so far. The party confirmed the figure in an e-mailed statement late today. The first of three stages of parliamentary voting, covering about a third of the country, ended yesterday with officials and rights groups citing a higher-than-expected number of voters and little violence. Results will be announced late tomorrow, state television said.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the voter turnout, which appeared to be very large, and also by the diligence of election officials,” said Robert Becker, political party trainer for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, a non-profit organization. “At the same time, we witnessed a lot of shortcomings, and a number of violations, and these are things we hope can be fixed in the coming rounds of voting.”
The run-up to the election was marred by a week of clashes between security forces and protesters that left 43 people dead. Demonstrators accuse the ruling generals of stifling freedoms while failing to restore security or revive an economy growing at the slowest pace in more than a decade.
Balloting in Egypt’s 18 remaining provinces will take place in two further rounds, with final results due by Jan. 13.
The benchmark stock index extended gains today after surging the most in almost two years as investors welcomed the largely peaceful vote. Yields in the nation’s first sale of dollar-denominated treasury bills yesterday were lower than expected as the government raised $1.53 billion.
In most constituencies, more than half of the votes have been counted, el-Beltagy said in a phone interview today. The Freedom and Justice Party said in an e-mailed statement that it is leading the count, followed by the Salafi Nour Party, a more conservative Islamic group, and then the secular Egyptian Bloc.
“The Egyptians have spoken and have chosen freely,” Essam al-Erian, deputy head of the Freedom and Justice party, said today on his Twitter account. “Everyone must respect the will of the people.”
Protests demanding an end to army rule continued throughout the voting and ballot count, with demonstrators maintaining a vigil after dark in Cairo’s Tahrir Square today. Protesters staged a sit-in outside the Cabinet building in central Cairo, banging on drums and chanting “Down with military rule!” The army says it won’t cede power before presidential elections due by the end of June.
“We will continue to protest until we’re sure that the military council is no longer ruling this country,” said Yamen Hazem, 28. “I don’t agree with holding a vote under a government that has no powers. No one can guarantee that there’s no rigging.”
Becker said members of his organization had witnessed “instances of what we call assisted voting, with party agents helping people to fill in their ballots,” as well as campaigning outside polling stations, something banned under Egypt’s electoral law. “It’s partly subjective, in many cases it was the only guidance voters were getting, but when party campaigners start going inside the station, that’s a clear violation,” he said today by telephone.
Other concerns include a lack of privacy for voters in many polling stations and the late opening of some venues due to poor preparation, said Becker. “Traditionally voter turnout is higher in the rural provinces than in Cairo, so the authorities have to be prepared for a very high turnout in the next two rounds,” he said.
The EGX 30 stock index added 0.8 percent at the close in Cairo after jumping 5.5 percent yesterday as the high turnout and absence of violence boosted expectations that the vote will help ease tensions and smooth the transition to democratic rule. The government sold one-year dollar notes to yield 3.87 percent, compared with the 5.25 percent median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of seven analysts.
Still, the EGX 30 is down 44 percent this year, and the yield on dollar bonds due April 2020 jumped to 7.03 percent today, the highest since January, as the unrest hurts Egypt’s economy. Tourists have shunned the country and industrial production has been hit by strikes. Gross domestic product grew 1.8 percent in the fiscal year through June, the slowest in at least a decade.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak, was founded in 1928 and its experience, organizational skills, support networks and name-recognition have given it an edge over the secular youth who were at the forefront of the leaderless anti-Mubarak revolt. Islamist groups have already won elections in Morocco and Tunisia, where the region’s wave of uprisings began a year ago.
“It’s only normal for the Freedom and Justice Party to be in the lead,” said Samer Soliman, an assistant professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo who’s also a member of one of the parties that make up the main secular bloc contesting the vote. “It has long years of political and election experience under its belt and has abundant human and financial resources. The main issue in the vote was the relationship between state and religion.”