CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptians voted Wednesday in the country's first-ever contested presidential election, but charges of fraud and a big boycott rally marred balloting that longtime leader Hosni Mubarak (search) portrayed as a major democratic reform.
Ordinary citizens and opposition party members told The Associated Press that election workers inside polls in Luxor instructed voters to choose Mubarak, who is expected to be easily re-elected to a fifth six-year term. In Alexandria, workers for the ruling National Democratic Party (search) promised food to those who cast a ballot, voters said.
More than 3,000 people marched through downtown Cairo at midafternoon — by far the largest crowd ever drawn by the opposition group Kifaya (search), or "Enough" in Arabic. Police watched from a distance, despite government vows the day before that protests would not be allowed.
Egypt says the decision to allow challengers to Mubarak signals a move toward greater democracy in a country that has seen only authoritarian rule for more than a half-century.
Opponents, however, dismissed the reform claims as a sham. They note that Mubarak's 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.
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.
Accountant Ahmad Ibrahim al-Shimi, 41, was one of many who joined the Kifaya march that started at noon in Cairo's main square, then swelled and spread to surrounding streets.
"I've never been in a demonstration before, I've never done anything before. But I'm disgusted. I've had enough," he said.
Turnout among the 32.5 million Egyptians registered to vote was expected to be low because many are deeply alienated from a government they see as accomplishing little, and they are unused to casting ballots or they believe the election will not make a difference.
Many ordinary Egyptians say what they really hope for is change without disruption, crisis or violence, leading to better jobs and more opportunities in the economically stagnant country of 72 million people.
Others seem to genuinely fear change and said they would freely vote for Mubarak, long seen as the nation'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."
Nour, a young, media-savvy candidate whose arrest earlier this year raised international protests, 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 his son, Gamal, a rising politician.
The country's election commission said Wednesday that private groups and observers were welcome to go inside polling stations, despite earlier rulings that only voters, judicial supervisors, election workers and some party representatives could enter.
There were many charges of election fraud.
In Luxor in the south, university student Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Ali said he was shocked when an employee inside a polling station told him he should vote for Mubarak or no one. Ali said he refused and insisted on voting by himself. He would not say whom he chose.
Two women interviewed by an AP reporter in the northern city of Alexandria said a ruling-party official had brought them to the polls in a bus and given them voter-registration cards, even though neither had ever registered.
One of them, Sohar Ahmed Ali, 37, wearing a full-length black cloak and veil, said she voted for Nour.
"It is a personal freedom," she said defiantly. "No one looks after the youth."
The other woman, Ammnah Mohammed, 35, said she voted for Mubarak and planned to go collect the food, oil and sugar packet that a ruling-party member had promised her if she voted — a violation of the law.
"What would be the guarantee that anyone else will do anything for us?" she asked.
Elsewhere in Luxor, Wafd Party representative Shaaban Haridi Bakr said he told a judge supervising a polling place that one election employee wrote on a ballot rather than the voter himself. Bakr said the judge yelled at the employee, but Bakr asserted that the employee went back and continued the same fraud.
Judges are supposed to independently monitor the voting, but critics contend that many of them are low-level officials and thus vulnerable to pressure by the ruling party.
Past parliamentary elections have been marred by widespread reports of vote rigging. In a May 25 referendum that set up Wednesday's vote, 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.
There also have been several instances of police and ruling-party violence against opposition demonstrators this year, including during the May referendum.
Final results were not expected until Saturday.