CAIRO, Egypt, AP -Egyptians voted Wednesday in the country”s first-ever contested presidential election, a ballot the government touts as a major democratic reform in this U.S. ally even though longtime President Hosni Mubarak is almost certain to win.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. across the country, and Mubarak cast his ballot in a school close to the presidential palace, accompanied by his wife and son Gamal, a rising politician.
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, have dismissed claims of reform as a sham.
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.
Until now, the 77-year-old Mubarak has been re-elected in referendums in which he was the only candidate, and voters” only option was saying "yes" or "no" to his continuing in power.
Mubarak has promised further democratic steps if re-elected to a fifth six-year term.
At one polling station in Cairo early Wednesday, banners hanging on a gate proclaimed "Yes to Mubarak for the sake of prosperity." In the first half-hour of voting, there were no locks on the ballot boxes, so polling officials refused to allow the four women voters who had shown to vote.
In Tahta in the southern province of Assuit, pickup trucks with loudspeakers roamed the streets calling for people to vote for Mubarak, an apparent violation of the ban on campaigning after Sunday.
Hours before voting started, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif took a tough line, warning that demonstrations were banned for election day.
The reformist group Kifaya had called for a rally Wednesday in one of Cairo”s main squares to protest "corruption and oppression" and the continuation of Mubarak”s rule.
"If there are demonstrations, they will be sabotaging the elections," Nazif told reporters. "It”s the responsibility of the police and the security forces to secure the voters” rights to cast ballots."
George Ishaq, one of the founders of Kifaya, vowed that the group — whose name means "Enough" — would go ahead with the protest.
"We have taken the right to demonstrate, and we are not waiting for anybody to give us permission," he said. "All I can say is that the whole world will be watching."
Brig. Mahrous Shabayek, the Interior Ministry official in charge of elections, was quoted by Egyptian news media as saying demonstrations on election day were "illegitimate" and would "be faced with firmness."
There have been several instances of police violence against demonstrators this year. During the May referendum that passed constitutional amendments setting up Wednesday”s multicandidate election, there were scattered instances of plainclothes officers and government supporters beating protesters.
Some 32.5 million Egyptians, out of a population of roughly 72 million, were registered to cast ballots Wednesday. The election commission said counting could take up to three days and final results would not come until Saturday.
Past parliamentary votes have been marred by widespread reports of vote rigging. In the May 25 referendum, the official turnout was 54 percent, but judges who supervised the polling stations denied that figure and said the turnout did not exceed 3 percent.
Judges will monitor Wednesday”s vote as well. But the election commission, made up of judges appointed by Mubarak, rejected an administrative court ruling allowing independent monitors inside poll stations.
Each candidate is allowed to have representatives inside the polling station. But Wafd party also officials complained that until Monday the government did not provide the voting lists needed to determine who the party can send to monitor. A party monitor must come from the station”s district.
Mubarak”s ruling party said it would welcome monitoring of the polls outside by private groups, and volunteers hoped to provide that. In the southern city of Menia, for example, 60 independent monitors observed the stations from outside.