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Egyptians head to the polls for first vote since historic revolt

By the CNN Wire Staff
November 28, 2011 -- Updated 0544 GMT (1344 HKT)
Electoral campaign banners are seen on a fence near Mohammed Ali mosque in Cairo on Sunday.
Electoral campaign banners are seen on a fence near Mohammed Ali mosque in Cairo on Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The head of Egypt's military says the country is at a "critical crossroads"
  • Some 50 million people are eligible to cast their ballot in the country's parliamentary elections
  • Polls open at 8 a.m.; There will be various rounds of voting
  • An analyst predicts spiraling unrest if the elections are perceived as illegitimate

Cairo (CNN) -- Amid worsening unrest, Egyptians will head to the polls Monday to cast their vote in the first election held since an improbable revolt toppled one of the world's longest-serving rulers.

Polls are set to open at 8 a.m. for the first of many rounds to decide who will sit in the upper and lower houses of parliament. Egyptians have dozens of political parties and thousands of independent candidates to choose from in what, for many, will be their first election.

"I have never voted in any election because it was totally corrupted and it was not called election. It was called forgery. Why ... vote if you're 100% sure that you won't be respected, you won't be counted," said Mohamed Ali, a tour guide.

He spoke in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where protesters have demanded change since early this year. They ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in February -- a major victory in the Arab Spring uprisings -- and are now calling for his military replacements to step aside.

Like many Egyptians, Ali is torn between the ballot box and a revolution he feels is incomplete. But for the first time in his life, he will vote.

Egypt set for historic elections
Egypt on edge ahead of elections

"The election -- it's the chance now," Ali said. "I'll go (vote) -- and (then) I'm back in the square."

'At a critical crossroads'

On the eve of Monday's election, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urged Egyptians to vote and warned of "dire consequences" if the nation's political crisis continues, state-run Al-Masriya TV reported.

Some 50 million people are eligible to take part in the historic election.

"Please go and vote because we want a parliament that is well balanced from all the parties and groups. The elections will not be successful until everyone who has a right to vote participates. Egypt is at a critical crossroads. It either succeeds, or Egypt will face dire consequences," said Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

Elections for the lower house are scheduled to take place in three stages, the last one of which is set for January. Upper house elections will run between January and March and be followed by a presidential vote.

The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, one of the nation's largest organizations, is expected to perform well in the election, which is taking place against the backdrop of demonstrations calling for an immediate end to military rule. Some protesters have said they will boycott the vote.

At least 42 people have been killed in the recent demonstrations, including at least 33 in Cairo. An additional 3,250 have been wounded, according to the health ministry.

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"I fought for these elections in Tahrir Square and even got shot, but I am boycotting them completely. I don't trust the military one bit ... It's a farce and more people will die in the next two days," said Omar Ahmed, a taxi driver.

Others expressed confidence and said they are excited about the opportunity to help decide the country's direction. The streets are full of election banners -- a strong sign of democracy in a country ruled for 30 years by Mubarak's iron fist.

"I believe the election is a good thing. ... If we are lucky, maybe we'll get rid of Tantawi," said Ashraf Nagi, an activist.

'Will never turn back'

Like Ahmed, analysts have warned of increased violence if the vote is not considered legitimate by most.

The elections in Egypt are being closely watched as the nation is the most populous country in the Arab world and a major player in regional politics. Whatever becomes of the revolution here will have wider repercussions.

"It is easy to imagine a spiraling of unrest and violence if elections are perceived as illegitimate by a significant number of Egyptians or, worse, delayed altogether," Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Qatar-based branch of the Brookings Institution, wrote recently.

"Since its revolution, Egypt has not had even one national body with real legitimacy. Legitimacy requires elections, which is why the upcoming polls are so critical for both Egyptians and everyone else who wishes to see Egypt move toward democracy and some modicum of stability," he said.

The country's military rulers recently appointed Kamal Ganzouri, who served under Mubarak, to his former role as prime minister. He was chosen after then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his government quit en masse, extending months of upheaval and instability.

"I think we've had peaks and we've had downs. Right now, we're having another peak. Unfortunately, maybe it's not the peak we hope for at a time like this," said Mohamed Ghoneim, another activist.

But, he added: "I definitely think the wheel that has gone in motion ... will never turn back."

CNN's Ben Wedeman, Ivan Watson, Dana Ford and journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.

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